Automation is a Journey. 3 Suggestions to Enjoy the Ride.

Posted on December 14, 2020 by Esoteric Staffing

Industrial automation systems for warehousing and distribution are on the rise. They offer benefits such as: increased density, reduced labor costs, improved ergonomics and safety, increased rates of order fulfillment, and a host of other benefits. Large scale projects that make the largest impact are not for the faint of heart. The following are three suggestions to help you enjoy the ride (without wiping out)!

Suggestion 1: Work with people that you LIKE!

Large scale industrial automation projects are long and tough. We're talking about projects that make a real impact on the bottom line. The types of projects that are risky for both companies and careers but are necessary to compete in a global market. Working with people that you like makes the journey more enjoyable.

In the article "3 essential things to know before you purchase an automated material handling system", recommendation #3 was to obtain the credentials of the people that will manage and execute your project. This is the aspect of managing people and the team that you can control. Don't spend 2 years working with people you don't like. Life is too short for that.

There will be challenges to solve. Calls in the evenings and weekends. Best not to cringe every time their name comes up on caller ID. Yes, we're talking about automated robotic systems and technology. You aren’t purchasing a new best friend. But, that technology has many disciplines and people involved. If there are people, it’s messy.

Projects are long and tough. It will take longer and cost more than expected (until you've done it a few times). Work with people you LIKE. Enjoy the ride.

Suggestion 2: Slow and steady wins the race.

Companies (end-users) deploying successful automation systems have been doing it for the last 20+ years. Don't bite off more than you can chew to play competitor catch-up. You’ll choke. Slow and steady wins the race. Experience builds on experience (company experience; not just individuals). Start slow to find out what works and build from that.

The challenge with starting small is that small projects rarely have a justifiable business case, based solely on financial return. Best to consider that starting small is the "cost of education". An investment in determining what type of automation works in your operation.

If you see your competitors installing state-of-the-art automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) --- and your company hasn't built one before, then best not to jump directly into the deep end. Yes, automated systems have real value and your competitors are (probably) not wrong. However, every company needs to learn how to apply the technology in their own operations, with their own people, systems, processes, and customer needs. The system supplier or design that works for your competitor may not work for you. Start small (but do start) to build your own bench of expertise.

The benefits of automation are not just equipment and software. Much of the benefit comes from improvements in operations, process, and material flow. This involves people-change to be successful. Not everyone likes change! Start small and build on your experience.

Suggestion 3: Don’t sweat leaving some ROI on the table.

Start simple, even if you have to leave the last few points of ROI on the table. Islands of automation get a bad rap, but they can lower risk and complexity. Corporate America lives for the "next quarter". Funding a project with less-than-optimal ROI to gain experience and learning is difficult --- but sorely needed.

The "suits" in the ivory tower lay out the grandiose expectations. The engineering department says, "we can engineer that". The risks involved are masked by ignorance on one side and over-confidence on the other side. Start simple. A simple system won’t make your next quarter, but it won’t break your next year. After you’ve mastered the first step, move to the second step. Skipping steps is painful.

Perhaps your competitors have been installing cutting edge automated storage and retrieval systems, e-commerce micro-fulfillment solutions, or the latest in mobile robots. Great for them. If you haven't implemented these technologies at your company before, don't start with a simultaneous multi-facility roll-out with all the latest tech. Build a roadmap and start with a single project (that perhaps is a simpler first-generation design). Finish that project. Document learnings. Document improvements. Then start the next. If you are tempted to leapfrog ahead, remember that it was the inability to start (years ago) that caused the falling behind. Just start.

Begin the next project before the learnings from the previous are footnotes in history. If you start number two before number one is complete, you won't have time to apply learnings. Ideally the roadmap should be built around a single technology or solution and supplier, that way learnings can be applied on both sides and rolled forward. In the world of industrial automation, a different supplier isn’t always better. Just different.

Will slow and steady leave some theoretical ROI on the table? Yes it will. Is it a good story for Wall Street? Not so much. Does it let you sleep well at night? Sure does.

Planning an industrial automation project? Work with people you like. Slow and steady wins the race. Leave some ROI on the table for the sake of success. Enjoy the ride. Find an Expert.