Manufacturing industry leaders in Europe discuss the pros and cons of the combining automation and work-from-home strategies

  • A recent survey of 200 large European manufacturers found that 38% of British businesses plan to increase their use of automation and robotics in the next two years to boost productivity.
  • Manufacturing industry leaders in Europe discuss the pros and cons of the widespread adaptations spurred on by the pandemic.
  • The pandemic has prompted wider use of automation and flexible working arrangements, but executives in Europe warn that small businesses may not see the same quick return on investment as larger firms.
  •  Business Insider named several people interviewed in this article to our annual list of the 10 leaders transforming supply chain in Europe.
  • Visit Business Insider's Transforming Business homepage for more stories.

There's no doubt the pandemic has changed working patterns dramatically. But while office workers around the world have been getting comfortable at the kitchen table, what of manufacturers?  

Findings from the Lloyds Bank Business in Britain report, a survey of 200 large manufacturers, show that three-quarters (74%) of manufacturers have used COVID-19 to become more efficient by altering their manufacturing processes, simplifying their supply chains and increasing automation. Some 38% of British businesses plan to increase their use of automation and robotics in the next two years to boost productivity.

"Our research suggests that businesses have used COVID-19 to review how they operate, with the majority saying they've taken steps to work more efficiently," said Dave Atkinson, SME and mid-orporate UK head of manufacturing at Lloyds Bank. "In doing so, making more use of automation and changing manufacturing practices are logical ways to become more efficient."

In the workforce, automation is often talked of in negative terms as a threat to jobs, but within the manufacturing industry it has key benefits. "First, it offers productivity gains and these are vital if manufacturers are to become more profitable and the economy is to become more productive overall," Atkinson said. "Second, investment in automation creates the need for high-value, well-paid jobs at a time when the anecdotal evidence is that COVID-19 has prompted some older employees to leave the workforce."

However, for obvious reasons there has never been a significant work-from-home culture in manufacturing and that is likely to remain the case, even after COVID-19. The reality is that most jobs in the sector still need to be done on site and, in any case, in many places manufacturers are unaffected by lockdown measures. 

The benefits to remote working and automation combined are huge. "Risk-free operations are a major benefit. Remote working and automation will ensure that manufacturing operations will not be heavily impacted in case of future pandemics or similar unforeseen events," said Rafi Billurcu, partner and head of manufacturing at Infosys Consulting.

"Additionally, remote working and automation manufacturing can result in greater efficiencies and minimal waste," he said. "The application of automation and other Industry 4.0 technologies such as AR/VR and analytics will ensure better efficiencies are achieved with minimal impact, impacting both the top-line and bottom line of organizations."

"If work is automatable, and automated, then the question of whether a human works locally or remotely is irrelevant — after all, the internet makes it possible to steer and monitor from anywhere, be it from an adjacent meeting room, at home or on the beach," said Michael Feindt, strategic adviser of digital fulfilment platform Blue Yonder.

Work done remotely not only involves industrial work handled by machines and robots, but also white collar workers performing strategic tasks — and automation is only effective when both sides of this coin are taken into account,  Feindt said. "Take supply chains as an example: While they do contain elements of manual human work, business's ability to view and understand data, and make decisions based on it, is becoming increasingly important. Retailers need items to be moved around the warehouse and delivered to stores, but decisions around stock replenishment are also absolutely critical."

Nonetheless, Billurcu adds that manufacturing has always been an onsite heavy industry. Such drastic changes in ways of working caused by remote working and automation manufacturing are bound to lead to a reduction of efficiencies in the initial period. 

Cloud-based ERP and other manufacturing systems are allowing machinery and other technology to be traceable and accessible, which is crucial in supporting remote automation processes. Real-time process sensors with process-oriented dashboards also provide full traceability of products throughout the lifecycle ("from cradle-to-grave"), which allow for a standardized production process to take shape. 

Digital readiness is key 

Remote working requires access and visibility to almost every part of operations – from supply chain to manufacturing to order management. This requires organizations to have end-to-end visibility into their operations and access to real-time information transmitted to a variety of sources such as sensors and automated guided vehicles (AGVs). Without the presence of a digital foundation, it's impossible to implement remote working.

For Karl Johan Lier, CEO of AutoStore, automation manufacturing has allowed the company to maintain a more stable production operation, with increased quality, less cost, and less need for personnel during the production process.

"For most personnel, working remotely means less disturbances and makes for a more efficient working day. It also enables us as businesses to have our sales professionals, and other members of staff, located close to the markets we are working within," he said. "To some extent, it also creates flexibility for the ways in which you are able to execute your job. During these times dominated by COVID-19, there is, of course the obvious benefits of reducing infections amongst the personnel and general illnesses, which has also equated to fewer sick days being taken in some circumstances."

However, Feindt warns, "Businesses do have to make assurances that remote working personnel are properly equipped with the required IT equipment and internet connections in order to work as efficiently as they would in a work environment and be able to effectively collaborate with colleagues from remote locations. Some personnel will also need to have access to hardware and labs from time to time, such as mechanical engineers, meaning these facilities need to be available and accessible when required."

Feindt also warns of underestimating the necessity of required skills of operators and maintenance personnel when it comes to automation manufacturing: "Their presence and ability to work effectively are crucial within this sector," he said.

But not all automation is equal. "While automation can be cheaper and faster, it can also sometimes be lazy and expensive," Martin Bysh, co-founder of fulfilment service Huboo, said. "It can often fail to deliver the expected efficiency gains, requiring more expensive, less easily available staff to run and maintain. For many businesses, particularly smaller ones, it can be more than 10 years before they see a significant return on investment in automation manufacturing – driving product prices up as a direct result."

Remote working is not going to go away. Having discovered the convenience and ease of working in this way, we are likely to see more people taking up more remote jobs in the years to come. Feindt believes that this continuous uptake in remote work will require more focus on simulations without the traditional direct access to the actual hardware during product development.

"It is becoming more and more difficult to get personnel to do tedious jobs at production lines, such as picking goods at e-commerce businesses, and because of this there is a greater need for increased robotization across the manufacturing and producing lines," says Feindt, "Automation is absolutely necessary going forward and the machines needs to be online to do the job effectively."

Ultimately, said Dave Hughes, technical director at PTC, a specialist in Industrial Internet of Things platforms, "the biggest benefit for automating is productivity. As soon as you don't need someone in a certain place, automation is winning." PCT offered a free version of its remote experience software Vuforia Chalk at the start of the pandemic. The software allows users to run augmented reality experiences over the top of physical activities and get remote assistance from elsewhere. "The benefit is that you can annotate the screen, save it, and use it for future reference and for training assets," Hughes said. 

Hughes said he's sure that the pandemic has meant more and more companies will turn to automation and remote working in future: "There's a cost to busing people around the globe and IoT helps uptime. For many organizations automation will have been put on the back burner, but the ability for them to change the way they operate and fast is key to survival."

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