Automating the Last Mile in Manufacturing

Introduction

Automation is certainly no stranger to manufacturing. The adoption of the assembly line by Henry Ford transformed the automotive industry. Since then the pace of acceptance has only grown with automation initially taking on simple, repetitive tasks and expanding into more complex challenges. 

Today, nearly every manufacturing facility contains a fascinating mix of automated machinery that create and package almost everything that we use, touch, or consume in our everyday lives. 

Most automation in production facilities focus on the manufacturing and packaging of the products. Examples of automation technology include robotics that paint, weld, machine, and assemble products, and hard automation to fill, label, and package consumer goods such as food and beverages. 

Recent trends show companies moving manufacturing closer to their customers, either to control quality, improve customer service, or reduce transportation costs. Some are reshoring (bringing back manufacturing from outside our borders). Other trends in consolidations, mergers, and acquisitions are creating an almost constant change in how products are distributed from manufacturing to consumer. In the meantime, demand for labor tightens as the economy grows and the pool of available workers shrinks. 

Automation is an obvious answer; the question is, where and how? 

Where to Look for the Last Mile of Automation? 

As supply chains become more complex, some have looked to the “Internet of Things” for solutions. It follows that internal processes would require more connectivity, using smart devices and processes to improve efficiency. Synchronized workflows and predictive analytics become necessary, not only for production planning but also for maintenance. Information flow and Big Data are necessary to create the foundation for future automation. 

Software is the start to the last mile of automation, but what else is needed to further enhance an operation? What functional areas must be considered?


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