Forrester Research analyst Craig Le Clair recently noted that automation is driving the trend towards digital transformation. Forrester characterizes automation as the tip of the digital transformation spear.
The basic concept is that increased automation is more real and appears more attainable to many organizations than the full digitally connected enterprise vision. They recognize the value to automated processes, automating the handoff of data to analytics engines and the elimination of manual processes to both their day-to-day operations and management activities.
Automation is still regarded, though, as a serious challenge in terms of system integration, workflow optimization and overall operational control. However, it can be broken down into a series of gradually achievable steps. As systems age and equipment nears end of life, upgrades can be done that add greater levels of automation and integration.
In comparison, the goal of digital transformation and end-to-end digital connectivity can seem a vague and distant dream. The idea of a digital thread that ties together every facet of the organization is considered by many to be highly desirable. But getting there is another matter entirely. Thus, management is more inclined to view automation as a stepping stone to a longer-term vision. That’s why Forrester said it is impossible to overstate the impact that automation will have on digital transformation and customer experience (CX).
One area where automation is moving at a fast and furious pace is robotic process automation (RPA). By the end of this year, that market will be worth in excess of $1 billion per year. Manufacturers in aerospace and defense are adding more and more robotics to their assembly lines, backed by process automation and higher levels of digitization in order to raise efficiency.
However, if an enterprise focuses purely on automation through assembly and inspection robotics and believe the rest of the digital enterprise vision will fall into place, they will not get there.
Digital manufacturing, after all, is all about the digital thread and the resulting efficiency, orchestration and optimization. Smart machines, sensors, and tooling can provide workers with real-time data about the processes they are executing. But true digital manufacturing can only be achieved by linking disparate systems and automating processes that span across all departments and functions within the value chain. By doing so, the entire product lifecycle is impacted from design to production and service. “Automation” should be viewed as more than putting robots on the production line. The “robots” behind the scene in the digital data path are also part of the automation equation for digital manufacturing—robots that are guiding data flow, guiding work execution, automating routine decisions, and orchestrating the flow of material and product through the entire value chain.
Digital manufacturing requires integration and automated workflows between PLM, ERP, shop floor applications and equipment to enable the exchange of product-related information between digital design and physical manufacturing execution. This enables manufacturers to achieve time-to-market and volume goals, as well as realize cost savings. By integrating as-designed requirements, validation and inspection records, as-built data, as-flown data, and as-maintained data:
- Efficiency is raised to new heights through automated exchange of data
- Shop floor assembly is accelerated through flexible work instructions capable of displaying 2D/3D part information, along with automated machining and tooling instructions. Perhaps laying those digital instructions on top of the physical assembly through augmented reality.
- Costly errors due to missed or misinterpreted data can be eliminated
- Turnaround times can be improved across the value chain via higher levels of process automation
- Decision points are provided with real-time insight
- The pace of innovation is heightened
- Production and maintenance costs can be lowered.
Companies automating and integrating in the IT dimension are moving the needle towards digital manufacturing faster while getting immediate benefits from modern manufacturing execution systems. Recent Gartner research showed that 87% of manufacturers that implemented a Manufacturing Execution System achieved short-term benefits, and 69% of manufacturers are currently investing in modernizing their core manufacturing system.
The iBase-t Digital Manufacturing Suite facilitates greater levels of automation throughout the enterprise by filling in the gaps that exist between PLM, ERP and other enterprise systems. It integrates and automates engineering and business systems to lay the foundation for the establishment of true Digital Manufacturing.