Electrification adoption is a growing trend among OEMs in multiple sectors. Running parallel to the electric trend is an increased interest in taking electrification further with automation.
Several factors are driving the automation movement. Unsurprisingly, the onset of COVID-19 exposed many supply chain weaknesses, including operations with a heavy reliance on human interaction. High-touch production lines suffered in the absence of workers to maintain them. Manufacturers investing in automation fleets were better equipped to continue operations, even with reduced staff. While the pandemic and its aftereffects continue to affect staffing, labor shortages were an issue before the pandemic. As the “baby boomer” generation ages out of the workforce, companies are struggling to find adequate numbers of younger generations to fill those spots. Overall, younger generations seem less inclined toward traditional production and warehousing roles. Even if qualified labor is available, there is still the mounting pressure of keeping up with global demand, which has not subsided since the first COVID outbreaks.
With some or all of these issues compounding on OEM operations, how can automation address these gaps and how do OEMs approach an automation rollout?
- Growth. The automation market presents a significant growth opportunity. Traditional markets such as the manual forklift industry are still reliable but lack space for meaningful technological changes. The electrification market, combined with automation, has endless growth opportunities as the technology continues to improve with each industry iteration. The innate potential of the automation field allows companies to adapt to changing times while also attracting a talented, motivated workforce.
- Efficiency. One of the most exciting areas of automation is Autonomous Navigation: the functionality of a machine to know where it is, where it should go, and how it gets there. Navigation approaches continue to advance as new technologies become available. Natural feature navigation is an increasingly popular and robust approach that uses data from a vehicle’s safety laser scanners to measure the shape of the environment, producing a map which can then be used to calculate the position of the automated vehicle.This type of intuitive programming can reduce high-touch scenarios as the AGVs can run operations with minimal intervention, plus maps and routes can be easily updated, digitally, should an operation change.
- Modernization. By its very nature, automation is a forward-thinking field. Companies prioritizing electrification and automation send a clear message that technological progress is valued. Investment in these areas can contribute to a brand’s relevance in ultra-competitive markets. External customers look for partners who can keep pace with manufacturing standards and global demand.
To reap the full benefits of an automation system, there are several considerations that OEMs should build into their project plan. Pre-planning is arguably the most important segment of an automation project. While infinite customizations are available, an automation system’s output is only as good as its input. Defining the automation scope is a key first step: what to automate?
Depending on the application, it could make sense to design a custom AGV from the ground up to maximize efficiency for that specific application. For more routine applications such as moving a pallet, for example, automating a standard forklift or pallet truck may be the best automation solution.
The autonomous navigation technology that will drive your solution is the next consideration. Determining the power source is also crucial early on in an automation project. Enlisting an experienced charging supplier (in an electric scenario) at the outset can reduce delays as all components would have been pre-vetted before installation.
An often overlooked consideration is also a readiness evaluation of staff. Does your team have the skills to manage an automated system, fleet, or machine? If not, then a training module should be folded into the project plan and/or the recruiting of qualified staff.
Last but far from least is selecting the right automation partner. Look for a partner with proven expertise and a dedicated support team. A qualified automation partner should be able to provide customer referrals who can speak candidly about their experience with the supplier in question. A seasoned automation supplier can provide a realistic blueprint for a rollout, including costs for commissioning, installation, maintenance, and any other project sensibilities. There are many other details involved in an automation undertaking. While the project can seem daunting, electric automation models continue to prove they are worth the time now to save time in the future.
If you are interested in discussing automation of new or existing projects, our experts at BlueBotics would be happy to connect with you. Contact them here.