Companies that want to shift from a ‘low automation environment’ to ‘high automation environment’ and companies that are trying to use Industry 4.0 elements would face problems in making the technology work and deliver results that they are looking for. I have seen companies who bought highly automatic machines and struggle with these machines. They face some of the following problems:
The output from automated machine never reaches 100%
The quality of the production is worse than the output from manual machines
There are high breakdowns in the automated machine
The whole team is generally uncomfortable with the automated machine
Many of the controls on the machine are bypassed
The overall experience of the company on account of the ‘higher technology’ does not encourage it to go for more such machines. I have seen companies use the automated machines with one/two manpower as the ‘feeding’ is not working or the operators will have to keep ‘adjusting’ the machine. This is an euphemism for not using the machine for its intended purpose.
There are some companies who have set up a new plant with a much more automated set-up and expect it to be much better than the older plants. Here again, the experience is mixed. These plants which started-off with an automated set-up are certainly better than the ones that have a ‘mixed’ population of manual and automatic machines, but still some of the problems like ‘by passing the controls’ happens even in these plants.
What are the reasons for Indian manufacturing companies not being comfortable with automation, automated machines? I am not even talking about using Industry 4.0 fully in the company for which the company must rise itself beyond just automation. I feel we have to look at the way in which work happens in the era of manual machines to understand why it does not happen properly in the automated machines era.
The work environment in ‘manual machines’ era is punctuated with the following:
People management: The skill in most demand in this environment is ‘people management’. If one can manage people well, then he is a good manager. In case of trouble, one only needs to ask the people to ‘adjust’. The ‘people management’ usually does not have any standard. Every leader will try to manage them in his/her own way.
Unstructured: As ‘people management’ is the skill in demand and people are very flexible or so one treats them, there is no need for much of systems and structure. The production happens in a convenient manner. The daily problems define how the work is carried out on that day. The centre piece i.e. people, are the adjustable element.
Control of situation: The shop leaders have full control on the situation as they decide what has to be done in the case of a problem, because they are great people managers. So, the shop leaders are the bosses.
Gross level: Every situation is dealt with at a very gross level. If there are too many breakdowns, the ‘people’ element is pushed to do more in the time the machines are available. Many companies end up investing into more capacity and using only 60-70% of it due to the various losses that have been accepted as ‘normal’. No one goes into the depth of each issue and try to improve them. There are easier solutions.
Thriving on problems: The situation is so much dependent on the shop team; they keep enjoying more control if there are more problems. They are not good at solving the problems, but they do show shortcuts to the management that will deliver what is needed today. The management is also quite short-sighted to accept that and not look beyond it.
Managing small area: In manual machines environment, the breadth of control for a manager is normally small as they have to ‘skillfully’ manage the production.
Flexibility(?): The management very often feels they have a lot of flexibility in manual machines environment as they can bring about changes more easily. These changes may be too costly for the company, but they are able to do it anyway.
In every manufacturing plant, there are other inefficiencies like -
Quality problems that are never resolved for the past 50 years
Breakdowns that never seem to reduce
Material shortages that never seem to be solved
Production planning problems that stay forever
These inefficiencies are accepted as part of ‘normal’.
I am sure you would have come across several superheroes in the form of production managers/supervisors who ‘manage’ the shop floor. It is not very uncommon to see leaders from the operators who ‘control’ the production in certain areas in the factory. So, this is the kingdom of the ‘manual control’. There may be a few companies that have learnt how to handle the automated set up, but these examples are very few. Even the companies that claim they are highly automated are found wanting on the shop floor.
Environment of automated machines
In the environment where one has more automated machines, many of the behaviours in the ‘manual machines’ era are challenged.
Higher discipline and system orientation demanded: The ‘people’ element becomes less prominent on a daily basis and it is a very important element in the automated environment. But it is even more important as it has to take care of systems and enforce discipline. So, the role of the ‘people’ has changed dramatically, but the people are not changing. Deliberate education is needed to ‘skill up’ the employees.
Structure and efficiency: You need to have more structure in an automated manner. If we have a highly automated machine that costs a huge amount of money but if we are not disciplined to do even the preventive maintenance regularly, then the automation cannot work. We need to eliminate inefficiencies in the production. The material problems have to be solved and the production plan should work. The machine maintenance has to graduate to ‘predictive maintenance and condition monitoring’.
Control of situation: Even in the automated environment the man is in control. But, at a much higher level, he is expected to build the system, train people and so on, and not thrive on the day-to-day adjustments.
Subtle level: One needs to get into detail in an automated environment. It is very important to pay attention to that small push the feeding lever is giving to every part that is being fed into the machine from the chute. The maintenance team is supposed to manage this ‘push of the lever’ by maintaining the spring that is making it work. The production/maintenance/quality teams must get into micro details everywhere. They need to develop analytical capabilities and they need to have patience to manage a system that can deliver big if managed well.
Order and rules: From a ‘free for all’, the team has to come to an ‘order and rules’ environment. The automated machines need a certain care and be used in a particular way. The maintenance has to be much better. This problem is as difficult to address as to make all our motorists to follow the road rules. But this is the change needed.
Work on system: A supervisor/manager is expected to work ‘on the system’ as against working ‘in the system’ and manage larger areas. They need to get their priorities right. Maintaining the system is the priority and the system will deliver big.
Change in senior management
The senior management has to change its approach to managing. It needs to recognise this shift from ‘people’ to ‘system’ and train/review the teams accordingly. If the senior management continues to focus on the superheroes giving them more power, then the automation will get bypassed. People are crucial for the success of automation, but they need to learn to operate at a ‘higher level’ and not get stuck with the ‘adjusting’ level.
It would be good to approach automation as a ‘change of
culture’ initiative rather than just introducing more costly machine onto the shop floor. The team has to ‘re-skill’. It is possible to skill up the team if this is taken up deliberately. Do not treat the automation and Industry 4.0 as a project of the engineering department alone. It is a companywide initiative.
Courtesy: Indian Manufacturing Academy