Smarter Automation: Extracting the Robot Out Off the Human

- Mar 07, 2019-

“If a typical person can do a mental task with less than one second of thought, we can probably automate it using AI either now or in the near future” [1].


1. Today, manufacturing companies can automate sense, action, and thought

2. Integrating all functions of automation makes the workforce happier and the business more profitable

3. Implementation starts with small victories to demonstrate value, continues with orchestrated change management effort, and ends with building CoE capabilities.

As automation technology advances, informed human involvement becomes impractical in many tasks and processes. In manufacturing, especially, where a significant amount of the average worker’s time is spent doing repetitive work, to leave a routine process manual is getting increasingly non-viable. For this reason, many manufacturing companies rush in to implement numerous automation technologies. In SmarterChains’ experience, however, these astonishing systems are rarely utilized to their full potential. Instead, they often get buried within the organization’s toolkit, never delivering maximum value.

The purpose of this paper is singular: To discuss the concept of Smarter Automation, which is to leverage automation to the front-line’s (workers) and bottom-line’s (margin improvement) maximum advantage.

Manufacturing Automation at a Glance

This quick rule of thumb by Andrew Ng, leading AI expert, helps cut through the automation hype: “If a typical person can do a mental task with less than one second of thought, we can probably automate it using AI either now or in the near future”. [1]

In simple terms, automation can fundamentally change the way people work– but it still has limits. In manufacturing, however, where repetitive physical work is still quite prevalent, leveraging automation smartly means:

  • A happier workforce, with more interesting jobs.

  • Massive productivity savings across the organization.

  • Companies better equipped to navigate the modern ecosystem.

In essence, automation takes out what is robotic, repetitive and routine from human work. This enables the workforce to focus on tasks that require emotion, reason, and judgment. Simultaneously, as automation is tireless, faster and more accurate than any human, the business profits. Most importantly, the company becomes more competitive and consequently better equipped to survive disruptive innovation.

Smarter Automation Explained

Current technologies enable manufacturers to automate the following three functions: Sense, action, and thought. To accomplish the Smarter Automation objective, it’s necessary to integrate technologies of all three functions.

The sense function, for instance, includes technology types like speech, pattern, and optical character recognition or natural language processing. Applying these to the manufacturing context is quite simple: From answering supplier inquiries, basic customer support (like FAQs), to order processing and image scanning, the business benefits are clear and substantial.

The second function, action, is usually best served by Robotic Process Automation (RPA) systems. These technologies automate a list of low-skill repetitive manual tasks like typing data into a form or, worse, multiple forms. This removes productivity blocks and delivers immediate value.

Finally, thought, which is perhaps the most important function to automate, can be used to generate data-driven insights, predictions, and responses. For example, manufacturers can utilize machine learning technologies to predict and prevent shopfloor issues. Or, automate the creation of a knowledge base, a process commonly called ontology learning, to facilitate company research and development.

Leveraging Smarter Automation

Manufacturing leaders must treat the latest automation technologies as part of a broader strategy and vision to reinvent the way factories do business. The process starts with identifying what’s easier to automate and create new value from, based on clear success criteria. By starting small and securing some easy victories, convincing the workforce to welcome automation becomes much simpler.

As implementation continues and organizational pain points start getting resolved, it’s important to keep the process scientific: sober, rigorous, and fact-based. Seeing the causal relationship of sense, action, and thought automation with business benefits eventually leads to an enterprise-wide buy-in.

Simultaneously, companies ought to be building Center of Excellence capabilities across factories, focused on developing and fine-tuning the Smarter Automation technologies on a continuous basis. This way, the path to scalable smart automation is open and a world of possibility reveals itself.

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