Posted on 2/28/2018

Understanding the Obstacles to Automation

John Bedz

Many of us have heard the adage, “When a person walks into a hardware store looking for a ¼ inch drill bit, what problem are they trying to solve?” The easy answer that most choose is that they need a ¼ inch drill bit. The Zen master answer though is “What they are really looking for is a ¼ inch hole.” I’m sure if you try hard enough, that thought process can be applied to a lot of problems. It certainly applies to the Industry 4.0 sectors that Automation Alley programming and tools are bringing to its members and affiliates. It may also help get you out of a parenting quagmire with your kids. 

I recently went looking for a drill bit in the world of robotics and automation. Like the weekend DIY fixer upper, I was sure of what was needed to get the job done. I luckily ran into an expert that explained that I only think I know the problem (cue the tingly Kung Fu music). 

Looking at the first layer of the problem, I was sure that companies need to make the decision to automate, and it should not be a hard one to make. Robotics systems are cheaper and more versatile than ever. Companies automating are seeing an ROI faster than ever. Robots make your shop floor safer and remove tedious tasks from your employees. In fact, we’ve heard the stories about how initially employees have reservations about working with robots. Soon after installation though, they begin to ask what else can the robot help me with? Employees happy, bosses happy, vendors happy and efficiency, project flow and profits all trending in the right direction. So, what am I missing when I see that not every company jumps in on robotics? 

The problem I thought must be a lack of capital and understanding about what robots can bring to your manufacturing business. Surely if we could bring together the resources to inform companies about the ease of integration and connect them with financing for their expansion, they’d see the light. When talking with my robot Zen master, I learned that what I thought was the obstacle, was not the obstacle. 

Automation and robotics is a lot like other aspects of manufacturing. Organizations can realize economies of scale when dealing with multiples. Think about what a store charges for a bottle of water versus a six pack, or a case of the same water. Automation projects get cheaper for all when this same concept is applied. Now, I thought I had more to work with to help drive information to the companies considering this next move. Then I got hit with the larger obstacle, our collective knowledge base. 

Selling a robot to a company gets considerably harder if the knowledge about what to do with this new tool does not exist in the shop. Like the DIY guy looking for a drill bit, we hope the salesperson does not sell a drill bit to someone that does not own or know how to operate a drill. An intelligent company is an efficient company. Manufacturers must develop this expertise and nurture it in-house. 

So, the real big problem facing our members is how to get quality people and keep them. The decision to automate will flow from the strategy that develops when organizations develop a learning culture. We hear it about robotics as much as we do in other aspects of Industry 4.0. It is a basic element of our Tech Takeover series here at Automation Alley. It is at the foundation or our 7Cs assessments and our other practice areas.

In our Tech Takeover series, members have reached out to others to showcase their companies and educate them on the development of new capabilities. In robotics specifically, some have gone well beyond these and offer certifications on the use of this new equipment. Our colleges and universities have developed coursework in these areas, but it all moves a little more slowly than we hope that it would. 

The ecosystem in Michigan does work to cultivate programs to address these gaps. Our MASC program with the Workforce Intelligence Network ended recently, but the goals are living on through our Robotics Virtual Advisory Council. Our MASC network will be migrating there and be joined by a group of others interested in this space to drive our efforts to solve the problems facing companies considering the automation dilemma. Whether it is working together, finding partners, developing better curricula, or engaging collectively with national programs, we are committed to the legwork to help our members succeed. 

Join our robotics group, or one of the others at this link. We are already working with some of our schools on developing more effective coursework. We’ve developed a relationship with Manufacturing USA programs like LIFT, ARM and IACMI. We’ll continue to instruct our communities about where manufacturing is headed through our Technology in Industry Reveal on April 30, Integr8™ on November 14, and throughout the year with our partners. So, let’s talk about that drill bit problem you’ve got.

About the Author

John Bedz | Automation Alley

John Bedz is the program manager of entrepreneurship and defense for Automation Alley. He has been working in the technology development space for nearly 20 years, specializing in economic development, Department of Defense programs and in the private sector.


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