Automation technologies are driving a paradigm shift across industries, revolutionising the way we work, live, and interact with the world.
With the continuous advancements in these technological fields, various innovative tools and systems are being developed to automate processes, increase efficiency, and improve productivity and worker safety – many of which we’ll be exploring in this piece.
We’ll explore the vast landscape of automation technologies, highlighting their key features, benefits in manufacturing, the impact they have on different sectors and those which may make a bigger splash in the years to come, and we’ll bring a few experts along for the ride too.
Robotic Process Automation
Robotic Process Automation involves the use of software robots or physical bots to automate repetitive and rule-based tasks traditionally performed by humans.
RPA is transforming industries such as finance, healthcare, and customer service, but none more so than manufacturing, by streamlining processes, reducing errors.
“There’s obviously an increase in the use of robots, fed through AI to complete a variety of tasks, and these are borne out of a convenience of saving time and money and reducing waste,” says Shaun Peel, Technical Director at MattressTek, “I think, with the consciousness of reducing carbon towards being net zero, there will be an increase in the number of companies considering how to use AI and automate processes in this way.”
These bots can mimic human actions, interact with computer systems, and perform tasks like data entry, data extraction, and report generation, freeing up human resources for more strategic and creative endeavours.
Benefits of Robotic Process Automation in Manufacturing
Increased efficiency: RPA can automate time-consuming and repetitive tasks that are prone to human error. By doing so, it allows humans to put their considerable skill, creativity and problem-solving skills to use on more complex tasks.
Improved accuracy: Robots perform tasks with a high degree of accuracy and consistency, which humans can’t possibly replicate. This is particularly important in manufacturing, where precision and quality control are crucial in any step of the journey.
Integration with existing systems: RPA can integrate with various software applications and systems already in place within a manufacturing environment. It can interact with enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), manufacturing execution systems (MES), and other digital platforms, streamlining data exchange and improving overall process flow.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML)
“Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning technologies are at the forefront of automation advancements,” says Clint Johnson, Managing Director and Founder of Control Freaks, “AI enables machines to simulate human intelligence, while ML empowers them to learn from data and continually improve performance over time.”
These technologies have broad applications, ranging from natural language processing and speech recognition to computer vision and predictive analytics.
AI and ML automate complex tasks, optimise decision-making processes, and enable intelligent automation systems that adapt to changing circumstances.
Benefits of AI & ML in Manufacturing
Process Optimisation: AI and ML can analyse vast amounts of data collected from various sources in a manufacturing environment. By identifying patterns and correlations, these technologies can pinpoint optimal manufacturing processes, reduce waste, and improve efficiency.
Predictive Maintenance: ML algorithms can analyse sensor data from machines and equipment to detect patterns indicating potential failures or maintenance needs. By predicting maintenance requirements in advance, manufacturers can reduce downtime, improve equipment lifespan, and save costs.
Supply Chain Optimisation: AI and ML techniques can optimise supply chain operations by analysing historical data, market trends, and customer demand patterns. This helps manufacturers make accurate demand forecasts, streamline inventory management, and improve overall supply chain efficiency.
Internet of Things (IoT)
The Internet of Things has ushered in a new era of automation by connecting everyday objects to the internet, enabling them to communicate and exchange data. IoT devices, such as sensors and actuators, can monitor and control physical systems, making automation more efficient and responsive.
Smart homes, industrial automation, and smart cities are some of the areas where IoT is transforming processes, enabling remote monitoring, predictive maintenance, and optimising resource utilisation.
Shaun comments, “new developments in IoT, need to be rigorously tested to instil trust in consumers and buyers, as well as investors,’ says Shaun, “but there are so many risks (health and safety and safeguards) to take into account before any IoT launches on mass.
Benefits of IoT in Manufacturing
Enhanced Operational Efficiency: IoT enables real-time monitoring of equipment, processes, and resources. By connecting various machines, sensors, and systems, manufacturers can gather valuable data and insights into the performance and efficiency of their operations.
This information allows them to identify bottlenecks, optimise processes, reduce downtime, and make data-driven decisions to improve overall efficiency.
Quality Control and Product Traceability: IoT enables manufacturers to implement robust quality control measures. Sensors and connected devices can monitor production processes, detect deviations, and collect data on various parameters. This data can be analysed to identify defects, track product quality, and ensure compliance with standards.
“Additionally, IoT can enable product traceability, allowing manufacturers to track products throughout production and even post-sale.” Says Clint.
Intelligent Virtual Assistants
Intelligent Virtual Assistants (IVAs) are AI-powered software systems that can interact with humans through natural language interfaces. In a real-world application IVAs are also known more commonly as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Google Assistant, all of which can perform tasks, answer questions, and provide information or recommendations.
IVAs are continuously improving through machine learning, becoming more intuitive and capable of automating tasks like scheduling appointments, making online purchases, and controlling smart devices.
Benefits of IVAs in Manufacturing
Guided maintenance and troubleshooting: IVAs can guide maintenance technicians through complex repair and troubleshooting procedures. By providing step-by-step instructions, visual aids, and access to relevant documentation, IVAs can assist technicians in diagnosing and resolving issues more efficiently, reducing downtime and improving maintenance effectiveness.
Training and knowledge transfer: IVAs can be used as virtual trainers for manufacturing personnel. They can provide interactive and personalised training modules, simulating various scenarios and allowing employees to practise skills in a safe and controlled environment. IVAs can also serve as repositories of institutional knowledge, capturing and disseminating information to new employees or those in need of guidance.
Enhanced collaboration and communication: IVAs can facilitate communication and collaboration among manufacturing teams. They can schedule meetings, send notifications, and provide status updates to team members. IVAs can also act as virtual assistants during meetings, taking notes, and summarising discussions, enabling better documentation and knowledge sharing.
Cognitive Automation combines AI, ML, and natural language processing to automate tasks that require human-like cognitive abilities. It encompasses technologies like chatbots, virtual assistants, and cognitive analytics systems.
Cognitive automation systems can understand and process unstructured data, extract insights, and automate decision-making processes.
They find applications in customer service, content moderation, fraud detection, and knowledge management, augmenting human capabilities and improving operational efficiency.
Benefits of Cognitive Automation:
Data-driven decision making: Manufacturing operations generate vast amounts of data. Cognitive Automation can analyse and interpret this data to provide valuable insights and support data-driven decision making. It can identify patterns, correlations, and trends that humans may overlook, enabling manufacturers to optimise production, inventory management, and supply chain operations.
Agile and flexible manufacturing: Cognitive Automation allows manufacturers to quickly adapt to changing demands and market conditions. By leveraging AI technologies, manufacturers can optimise production schedules, adjust inventory levels, and respond rapidly to customer requirements, ensuring efficient resource allocation and reducing time to market.
Blockchain, originally known for powering cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, has expanded its application beyond finance. Blockchain technology offers a decentralised, transparent, and secure means to automate transactions and data management processes.
It eliminates the need for intermediaries, reduces fraud, and enhances trust. Automated smart contracts, decentralised identity verification, and supply chain management are some areas where blockchain-driven automation is making significant strides.
“Blockchain can provide end-to-end visibility and traceability in the manufacturing supply chain,” says Clint, “every transaction and movement can be recorded on the blockchain, allowing manufacturers to track the origin, quality, and movement of raw materials, components, and finished products.”
Benefits of Blockchain:
Enhanced security: Blockchain technology employs advanced cryptographic techniques to secure the data stored on the chain. As each block is linked to the previous one and contains a digital signature, it becomes difficult for those with malicious intent to tamper with the data. This heightened security can help protect sensitive information, intellectual property, and critical manufacturing processes from unauthorised access, manipulation, or data breaches.
Collaboration and trust among stakeholders: Blockchain facilitates collaboration and trust among multiple stakeholders in the manufacturing ecosystem. Manufacturers, suppliers, distributors, and customers can securely share and access information on the blockchain, eliminating the need for intermediaries and reducing administrative complexity.
Automation technologies are driving a remarkable transformation across industries, unlocking new possibilities and enhancing productivity.
From Robotic Process Automation and Artificial Intelligence to the Internet of Things and Robotics, these technologies automate repetitive tasks, augment human capabilities, and optimise processes.
The rapid advancements in automation are reshaping the way we work, improving efficiency, and enabling us to focus on higher-value activities. As these technologies continue to evolve, their impact will reach every corner of society, propelling us into a future where automation is an integral part of our daily lives.