How automation will boost SMEs

Posted by Brought to you by Matthews Australasia on 13th February 2017

Inspection, such as metal detection and weigh-price labelling, is one area where automating processes can deliver substantial returns.

Automation is no longer just for big companies. Aided by even-more-affordable technology, an increasing number of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are automating manufacturing processes and reaping the rewards — improved efficiency, boosted productivity and money saved — all by  automating routine and often error-prone tasks that humans perform.

Automation can enhance quality control (QC) by ensuring consistency and preventing sub-par products from leaving your factory doors. Ultimately it can help you conquer new markets. Here’s how.

Many businesses are thinking “lean”, so if your New Year’s resolution was to create a more efficient, lean organisation, then it could be time to automate.

Inspection is one area where automating processes can deliver substantial returns. A checkweigher, for example, will check the weight of goods and automatically reject any products that are over or under the required tolerances. By ensuring product consistency, you can target cost reductions, and ensure greater customer satisfaction, more transparency and increased profits. (If you thought overweight goods was a “nice” thing for your customers, this explains why it isn’t as it takes you through some common problems and the solution that matches them.)

Today, automation offers another competitive advantage by enabling data to be collected along the production line. For example, some checkweigher models provide complete reporting, with short and long-term statistics on materials, machines, batches, shifts and alarm messages. With visibility of trends and process efficiency, you can make informed business decisions to drive continuous improvement.

If you’re unsure if you really are ready for automation, here are some signs to think seriously about it:

 

a) Increasing volumes

Justifying the cap-ex on automation investment for small production numbers can be difficult, but if you’re increasing volume output (or are looking to do so shortly), manual operators may no longer be able to keep up with demand. Manual ops can quickly compromise on safety, consistency and accuracy, which could end up costing you money — and even customers. Automation will ensure you maintain high quality while driving significant cost savings.

b) Contract manufacture

Large contracts generally mean possible increased production volumes, but they can also come with certain compliance stipulations. For example, Woolworths Quality Assurance (WQA) requires that all Woolworths-branded products must go through an electronic check-weighing system, so the vendor’s plant should include checkweighing inspection equipment.

c) High labour costs

One of the reasons many SMEs might reject the idea of automation is because of high costs. However, automation equipment can actually save you money in labour. For example, using a Label Printer Applicator (LPA) to print and apply labels means you ensure more consistent results and can redeploy your staff to areas where they can add better value –— as one of Australia’s leading antipasto manufacturers and distributors found out.

 

Despite sending volumes of goods nationwide, AusFresh was labelling cartons by hand. The process was highly manually intensive: one person printed 5,000-7,000 labels a day, standing at the printer the whole time to remove printed rolls and wind them manually. They would then pass the labels to another operator, who applied the batch code and use-by date with a date-gun. These labels were then applied, two labels to each box. The manual-only process had a high risk of human error and the line had to be stopped if labels were missing, meaning lost productivity.

By implementing an integrated carton print and apply system, AusFresh saved a person a day and improved productivity. The company can now apply up to 7,000 labels a day, knowing they are all accurate and using the best of the company’s resources. Here’s how they did it.

Automation also answers the question of seasonality. If your business faces peaks and troughs in demand, there’s no need to hire more or less staff — simply program your equipment to scale up or down accordingly.

READY TO AUTOMATE, WHAT NEXT?

Good planning is the only way to make automation work, so begin by doing your research:

What to automate?

Coding, labelling, vision inspection, label inspection, check-weighing ­— there’s a huge range of processes you can automate. But that doesn’t mean you have to automate them all. Consider what will bring the most value to your business and help you meet your future goals.

Which processes will be impacted?

Automating one part of the process will have a knock-on effect down the line. Consider the impact of automation, looking specifically at which processes will need to change and how. For example, if you automate your filling, then manual labelling may not be able to keep up so you may need to look at automating the labelling as well.

Can you integrate?

Look at which processes can be integrated. For example, there are big benefits to be gained by integrating end-of-line identification and inspection technology, namely faster changeovers, more centralised control and real-time visibility. Check out this free whitepaper on the benefits of integrating identification and inspection.

Managing and maintaining equipment?

Proactive maintenance is imperative for any equipment to ensure it continues to perform at its optimum. (This article goes into the differences between preventive maintenance vs breakdown repair.) Having reliable, local support from your equipment supplier can make all the difference. Choose your vendor on the merit of their long-term support rather than the initial expense. Service and support are critical in ensuring the ongoing efficiency of your equipment, so check that your supplier can provide regular maintenance as well as emergency repairs and support when you need it. (Here are some more things to consider in choosing a provider.)

What are your finance options?

Start by working out the total cost of ownership (TCO), including the initial purchase cost, set-up, training, maintenance and repair costs over the life of the automation. (Here’s some more information on TCO.) Still over budget? Don’t panic — you have more options for financing equipment than you might think. For example, rather than buying outright, small businesses can benefit from leasing product ID equipment, as this allows you to upgrade to the latest technology as needed. (Read more equipment finance tips in our blog).

READY FOR AUTOMATION?

 It might seem overwhelming, but done right the time and money spent on automating processes are well worth the investment. Working with Matthews Australasia means you can take a step-by-step approach to identifying processes, selecting the right equipment, and implementing automation technologies, and ultimately unlock your growth potential. Talk to us today.

Check out Matthews’ vast resource library. It has a host of detailed information that’s all free to download! There are whitepapers, presentations we’ve done to industry bodies, infographics for manufacturing, case studies, articles from our thought leaders, vids showing solutions in action and more!