Automation for the People

February 1, 2019

By Scott Geffros

I was approached in August of last year to participate on a panel discussing automation at the Western Pallet Association’s winter meeting.  In preparation for the panel discussion, I endeavored to expand on my experiential knowledge on the subject, and solicited input from some of our members.  My purpose was to gather enough insight to be able to answer the questions asked to me during the panel discussion, and to ensure that I could offer something of value in those answers.  
 
As I went about gathering intel, I was a little bit surprised by some of the feedback I got.  It did not surprise me that large scale efforts to automate production and projects involving considerable cash investment varied between industry segments.  Pallet recyclers were more apt to look to materials handling equipment, conveyors, stackers, etc in their search to improve productivity, while new pallet manufacturers typically focused on upgrading saw lines, or pallet assembly equipment.  What did surprise me is how many individuals, regardless of their type of operation commented on their experiences with smaller scale and lower cost investments in equipment and technology aimed at making essential, but non-value add processes usually tasked to general labour employees simpler for staff.  In almost all instances where those interviewed commented on these types of investments, the resounding theme was that in general the return on investment was significantly shorter and more measurable when tackling these issues than when looking at larger scale production items.
 
Let’s think about that.  An investment to cut down time associated with stenciling, scrap disposal, or painting has a greater or more measurable overall impact to profitability than bolstering production outputs.  How can that be?
 
The answer is people.  Plain and simple.  In all of your manufacturing operations it seems that the biggest challenge faced on a day to day basis is staffing, and maintaining a staff of dedicated and reliable employees. Invariably your most reliable employees are tasked with the most valuable positions in the operation. This would typically be in the areas of production and material handling/shipping/receiving (for that matter, where they are most needed on any given day) while those who tend not to be as reliable are usually tasked with the less important, or general labour, jobs.  As the measurable contribution to the bottom line is difficult to assess when associated with these seemingly less important roles, many find it difficult to justify investing in technology to make them more efficient and continue to watch a revolving door of general labourers tasked with filling these roles come and go.  However, if you examine it closely, it’s easy to see how focusing on these areas can result in a highly measurable impact to the overall bottom line. 
 
Let’s break it down.

A common theme on the panel and with those interviewed was that even if they invested in a piece of production equipment that could replace four or five positions, the employees who filled out those positions would be repurposed within the organization, more than likely in another area of measurable contribution. Contrary to popular belief, investment in automation does not necessarily result in a loss of jobs.  What is to be realized from this is that the individuals involved in those production positions, likely your most reliable (and highest paid) staff, will always have a home within your operation contributing to the growth of your company by way of increasing the volume of production outputs or making them more efficient.  On the other hand, where your top staff may be repurposed and refocused as a result of automating production processes, if you fail to look at the general labour side, the money sucking revolving door of general labourers required to support the production operation will continue to spin.

As noted, these general labour positions tend to be high turnover in many companies and are filled with the less reliable staff, agency recruits or the like that require constant attention and supervision, not to mention the time spent in onboarding and training.  However, each organization by right probably has one or two of those “indispensable” utility staff who are your swiss army knife for all general labour jobs.  By investing in automation at the general labour level (for example, a handheld inkjet printer used in the application of IPPC marks eliminates time, reduces ink use, and has a higher likelihood of delivering clear images on the first attempt), you support and empower those people thereby reducing your reliance on the overall number of people required to fill these roles. This will then provide you with more opportunity to work with the existing general labour talent in your operation and hopefully retain them.  When the next “good one” arrives, you will be able to rely on their talent to utilize the tools that you have provided to accomplish the work that used to require two or three “warm bodies”, thus creating a more measurable role in the organization and in turn, value.  By equipping yourself with the tools to reduce general labour requirements, you will inevitably be able to focus more on the production side and ensure that those key staff have all the resources and opportunity to do what they do best. 

Whatever your take on technology and automation is, one thing for sure is that regardless of how good, productive or efficient the equipment is, it will never completely replace the reliance on people.  If you are considering investing in some of the new and amazing technology and equipment available to us today, remember to ensure that you are not solely focused on the obvious high-profile areas of your company, and understand that there is a larger picture.  The strength of any manufacturing company invariably lies in the people it employs, and the industry leaders today who are successful in their incorporation of these new technologies share a very similar viewpoint.  They all seem to realize that an investment in automation is not simply an investment in a piece of equipment, or technology.  It is an investment made to support the people that you rely on daily to keep your business successful.  Therefore, automation is for the people.

 

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