Comment: Developing the data-driven side of automation in manufacturing

4 min read

A new approach to data collection and analysis - and how real, measurable value is extracted from data - should be the next step for many manufacturers, says Jason Chester, director of global channel programs, InfinityQS.


Throughout the decades, the manufacturing industry has been propelled rapidly forward through the utilisation of automation within its operations. Mass production would not be possible without the techniques and technological revolution we’ve seen, replacing physical tasks with automation to free up workers to be better used elsewhere. These developments did not stop here; businesses are always striving to rise to the forefront of new developments in technology, or embracing new initiatives in the service of making significant efficiency and productivity gains for an ultimate gain in growth and profits.

In order to further optimise industrial processes, a new approach is needed going forward. As the big wins from industrial automation have already been gained, businesses must look elsewhere to overcome the ever-diminishing returns that they see today, and data could be the answer. Yet data-driven automation has been severely neglected in comparison to its mechanical counterparts.

Refocusing on the way data is collected and analysed, and how real, measurable value is extracted from data, should be the next step for many manufacturers. Doing so could potentially improve the efficiency and productivity of production operations, eradicating waste and greatly improving your overall product quality. Data utilisation is the future and should be the main priority for the next stage of industry and manufacturing.

Information automation is not on the same level

It is fairly common to see process parameters, product quality checks and lab checks recorded manually, even in highly automated manufacturing environments. Potentially, this is still even on paper. The contrast between how production and quality are monitored in comparison to the automation on the shop floor is vast, and ultimately overall performance in the long-term suffers as a consequence.

Boosting manufacturing performance in real-time is possible through optimising end-to-end manufacturing processes. Manufacturing and quality intelligence solutions help do just that. By detecting and preventing small errors in production compounding, or eradicating unnecessary variability in a process, advanced shop floor information technologies provide you with the right information to reduce waste and risks of creating subpar products. When scaled up across the entire manufacturing lifecycle and all facilities, the net improvements can be significant.

But how is all of this possible? Effective automation of data-related processes is the key – from data acquisition, statistical analysis and visualisation. By ensuring that data is available at the right time, and presented to users clearly and effectively, workers can constantly make the best, most informed decisions when it comes to optimising production.

Manual data management by comparison is incredibly tedious. Worker’s time is wasted collecting, preparing, importing and analysing data – time that can be better spent putting employees where they are needed the most and maximising organisational profits. The risk of human error with manual data entry is also much greater than through an automated system, leading to results and analysis that might not even be entirely reliable all of the time.

Optimising data-driven operations for maximum efficiency

As information automation takes the lead, data is rapidly becoming the stage for battle as manufacturers strive to beat their competitors on efficiency and productivity. Automating data collection processes is the key to this. Whether this is through timed data collections, data collection workflows or more data-driven processes, workers can feel supported by having the information they need at their fingertips whenever they need it.

This goes a step further, as this data can be analysed once collected in ways to provide real-time insights to workers on the shop floor. Where previously something like this wasn’t possible, we now have the technology capabilities to capture and analyse data in real-time (using sophisticated algorithms) and present the result of that analysis in highly intuitive visualisations. Critical changes can be made in real-time to ensure production processes run optimally, streamlining the overall decision-making process to be much faster and more effective.

Constant and automatic monitoring has extra perks. Where much effort is spent in legacy manufacturing environments monitoring stable processes so that we can be ready to catch abnormal or problematic situations, data simplifies and eradicates operator inefficiency. Workers can easily be made aware of violations or problems in real-time and be able to act to prevent or avoid issues before the damage is even done. In cases where processes are not optimal, teams can instantly locate where the problems lie, or where problems are most likely to occur in the future, and intervene proactively before there can be any impact on manufacturing performance.

Long-term business planning becomes actionable

As automation is rolled out across more information collection and analysis processes, wider scale insights across the entire company’s manufacturing performance become available. Operations managers, quality professionals and C-suite executives can use the enterprise visibility attained through manufacturing and quality intelligence solutions beyond the shop floor to monitor and analyse automatically generated dashboards. Each user receives the essential information they need – dependent on their role and responsibility – in order to do their job most effectively.

With all this data easily to hand, decision-makers on higher levels can make widespread adjustments and optimal practices from top-performing plants uniform across all of their sites for maximum benefit. They can also compare quality across multiple sites, products, processes, lines, shifts, or production runs to identify continuous improvement opportunities that lead to global transformation and exponential cost savings.

Centralising data in a unified repository is the key to enterprise-wide visibility and operational intelligence. As manufacturers prepare their organisations for the next steps in their digital transformation, they can gain consistent process and quality improvements from having their data automated and accessible at all times. Embracing data-driven automation across all sectors is the ultimate for businesses to continue future-proofing their operations, and stay one step ahead of their competitors who remain stuck in their paper-based ways.

Jason Chester, director of global channel programs, InfinityQS