Jack Rubinger, of Graphic Products explores how automation can save your business time, money and the headaches of wasted productivity potential.

How do you get started automating your manufacturing process? Just take a look around.

Look for wasted movements, time and effort, wasted space, and disorganised work areas. Then ask operators how to eliminate waste and think visually about how and where things should go. A simple instructional or operational sign can help an operator remember and prioritise all the steps in a particular process.

“Manufacturers deal with seven forms of waste: inventory, over production, transport, defects, over processing, motion and waiting,” said Melissa Topp, the Director of Global Marketing for enterprise software provider ICONICS. “Lean manufacturing is an iterative approach that encourages manufacturers to eliminate those sources. Technology solutions accompanying each phase concentrate on manufacturing intelligence reporting, alarm management and downtime reduction.”

The manufacturing automation industry is huge – encompassing technologies such as computer controlled machines for processing and handling products, process automation systems, general motion control systems, automation related software, and condition-monitoring equipment and systems.

Business benefits of automation include global competition, meeting orders quicker, faster deliveries, increasing shift productivity, lowering operating costs, increasing yields, reducing load/unload times, reducing damage or breakage during handling, less material waste, and labour savings.

In Australia, there’s no cheap labour, explained James Abbot, of Challenge Engineering. Abbot relies on computer numeric control (CNC) machining which offer multiple manufacturing processes in a single machine. They are quickly and easily set up, and all turning, milling and drilling operations can all be carried out in a single setup. This type of automation machinery maximises staffing and helps his company maintain an edge over imports.


Automation ROI

When faced with production requirements that exceeded current operational capabilities, PGT Industries applied ICONICS’ software to 12 critical production assets to analyse the overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) of the plant. The software was used to zero in on sources of loss of OEE, focusing on availability, quality and performance. PGT Industries realised savings and cut enough waste that it postponed its plans to build a third production facility, and discovered it could run at 1.5 times its previous production capacity with the same assets. With these findings, PGT Industries decreased labour and energy costs by 20%.

Portable analytical instruments help automate processes in the pharmaceutical and scrap metal industries too, according to Larry Zeltner, director of operational excellence, portable analytical instruments, Thermo Fisher Scientific.

“Monitoring and controlling raw material and quality regulatory compliance is critical with pharma companies,” he said. “A low-cost handheld device generates instantaneous and accurate results – avoiding costly and time consuming quality control analysis typically done by offsite labs. XRF screening tools help make accurate and quick estimates of the value of these loads – leading to profitable decisions in a business that operates on thin margins.”

Automation played an important role in the recipe for Barbers Farmhouse Cheesemakers’ success. Their challenge? Ensuring accurate size and weights for cheeses as required by UK law while minimising oversize portions. Barbers engineers implemented an automated weighing and cutting system and reduced give way from 4-5% down to less than 1%.

Another hands-on approach to lean manufacturing and automation was delivered by Lois Quinn, Rapid Operational Improvement, for a furniture manufacturer.

Quinn and her team addressed several key challenges and engineered the changes. One problem? An awkward framing table used to square and assemble office desk divider panels commonly used in offices. Before launching into the lean program, measurable goals were established:

  • Improve the table, decrease frame assembly time, eliminate defects.
  • Reduce change-over time from one panel size to the next and improve ergonomics by eliminating reaching over to get to smaller panels in the middle of the table.
  • Identify and eliminate major safety hazards.

Ultimately, a new and improved table resulted from a kaizen workshop lead by the operators. The new table rides on linear bearings to adjust to the width of the panel. Two clamps (one at each corner) can be moved to adjust panel height. This allows two operators to work on opposite sides of the panel at the same time without reaching out over the table. In the past they would be required to carry the panel to another table. Now all the work can be completed at one table – eliminating the safety and ergonomic issues of lifting and moving panels and saving time.


  • Minimal work in progress (WIP)
  • Minimal part travel distances
  • Safe and ergonomically designed production cell
  • Ensured the table was capable for production – a volume of 800 panels per day.
  • Met the allocated portion of labour costs and time to support the achievement of the 25% cost reduction desired.
  • Eliminated safety and ergonomic issues.
  • Improved 5S level by 25%

From both a managerial and an operational perspective, automation plays an important role in lean manufacturing because it frees up time for humans to actually think about their processes and it speeds tasks and jobs that machines can ably do.

But some experts believe automated processes should be phased in systematically. “Automation typically isn’t a solution that can be tried and changed easily and should occur in the latter stages of a lean implementation to eliminate worker ergonomic overburden as well as mitigating potential safety concerns,” said Paola Castaldo, Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership.

She added, “But designing automated systems before going through the rigours of lean could potentially fix the wrong problem because you could be automating a broken system. However, when human constraints get in the way of continuous flow and quality, automation could be the only way to deliver the next incremental improvement and be an appropriate solution.”

Safety and lean

Eliminating opportunities for injuries goes hand in hand with increasing business productivity. While some view injuries as an unavoidable consequence in many operations and industries, these impact the bottom line and the morale of the other employees.