Proven Strategies for Implementing Automation in Manufacturing

Three key takeaways from the NEXT 2023 Q&A session

Panel of experts at a table discussing automation in manufacturing

“The labor shortage is both driving customers to automate and limiting customers’ ability to successfully implement and maintain their automation,” said Killian Lapeyre—Hygienic, Spiral, and Packer to Palletizer Business Unit Manager at Intralox—to open NEXT 2023’s session on automation in manufacturing. 

In addition to a lack of skilled labor, market demand for unique products of varying sizes continues to require increasingly complex automation technology, and manufacturers are struggling to keep up. Automation is not a simple, one-size-fits-all solution. 

How do manufacturers know which processes should be automated? Should their existing automation be upgraded? If so, how? And with which technologies? 

“The final format of an automation project may look radically different from one industry to the next,” Lapeyre continued. “But successfully executed projects still share many of the same principles in project planning and design.” 

Our panel of experts sat down in March to discuss their experiences and provide insight into their automation work with manufacturers. Here are their three crucial predictors of success.

Standardization 

“Standardization of hardware and controls platforms is something that I highly recommend once you start going down the automation journey,” said Peter Twigg, Director of Automation – Corporate Engineering at Maple Leaf Foods. 

Though it’s a simple and perhaps even intuitive idea, he urged manufacturers not to overlook the savings that standardization can offer in terms of maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO). 

“You can cross-functionally stock parts across multiple machines instead of purchasing new hardware every time you procure a piece of equipment,” Twigg said. 

But as he mentioned, it’s not all about hardware. It’s the combined standardization of parts and controls that yields the greatest benefits to MRO. “Standardization of hardware but also of controls platforms is very important to us,” Twigg said. 

Many suppliers offer their own controls platforms, each with its own unique programming method. To support several platforms in a single facility, an operation would need “very advanced technical resources,” Twigg said. 

A more sustainable approach is to use a maximum of two—but ideally one—platform per facility, which allows staff to work more fluently across the entire operation. “Once they’ve trained on one platform, they’re able to work on other equipment,” Twigg said. Which brings us to the panel’s next key takeaway… 

Continuous Training 

“I don’t know how many times it’s been said today: You’ve got to train your people,” said Cory Gardner, Director of Engineering at Shearer’s Foods. 

Successful training starts before equipment has even been installed in order to uncover and improve potential gaps or inefficiencies in standard operating procedures. And more importantly, it never stops. Continuous, hands-on training of operations and maintenance staff is essential to maintaining the ability to run 24 hours—and to retention. 

If you trust their technology and you trust their understanding of your business, then you just have to grow to rely on their experience. And experience will get you over a lot of problems you don’t know exist.

Daniel LoRusso
Director of Sales, Upgrades, and Systems, NA, BW Integrated Systems

“It’s probably the most difficult part of it, and it definitely is challenging to then keep that person,” Gardner continued. He suggested having your OEM partner set up on-site for initial training through startup and then allowing your team the freedom to learn the equipment and find their questions naturally as they work. 

“We send them off for a month or two months depending on the complexity of the machine,” Gardner said. “Let them struggle a bit and come up with some questions.” 

Then, when the timing is right for follow-up training, invite your OEM partner back. Which leads to the panel’s final key to successful automation…

Trusted Partners 

“The partnerships between OEMs and manufacturers are key,” said Greg Jacob, Senior Vice President at ProMach. 

Of all the ideas discussed by the panel, this one was agreed upon most strongly. Especially in the early phases of an automation project, our experts explained, it’s essential for manufacturers to have or build a trusting relationship with their OEM.

For Jacob, that means each side of the partnership being transparent about their goals, as well as some more “intangible” qualities beyond the hard numbers in a bid. These can tell you whether that particular OEM has the operational expertise to handle your project.

“Does your prospective vendor show up with a technical team that is actually asking good questions?” Jacob asked. “What’s the depth of their project management? What’s the process they have?”

Gardner shared a similar but more abstract sentiment: Establishing your OEM relationship often begins with a gut feeling that they’ll truly fold into your team with open minds and fuel your collaborative process.

“I’ve got to find somebody that is flexible because I don’t know all the specifications up front,” Gardner said. “Somebody that can work with us through the process from start to finish who’s going to be there with the same team, making sure that team isn’t changing midway through the process."

“The other part of that is really looking at creativity during the up-front process,” he continued. “So looking at how they’re getting to a drawing, how they’re making sure that I understand what’s going on in the drawing, and being able to walk that through with our manufacturing team.”

This deep collaboration with OEMs allows manufacturers’ end-user teams more familiarity with and ownership over the project. Ken VonderHaar—Global Director of Vertical Integration for Cans at Anheuser-Busch—finds these to have been crucial in all his successful projects.

“Besides the fundamentals of proper front-end planning at the beginning of a job,” VonderHaar said, “what we have found to be the single biggest differentiation between projects that go well and projects that don’t is engagement by the plant team.”

Finally, Daniel LoRusso—Director of Sales, Upgrades, and Systems, NA at BW Integrated Systems—emphasized the importance of your partner’s experience. He said trust comes easily when you find a partner with a strong history of success.

“It comes down to two things for me, and that’s trust and experience,” LoRusso said. “If you trust their technology and you trust their understanding of your business, then you just have to grow to rely on their experience. And experience will get you over a lot of problems you don’t know exist.”

Summary 

Sure, automation and its related challenges come in all shapes and sizes. And embarking on a new automation project can be daunting both for your company and your plant’s team.

But there are some things that can ease the process and increase your odds of success, and the one our panel agreed on above all is who you choose to partner with.

We pride ourselves on our long and fruitful collaborative partnerships. Contact us in the early stages of your next project so we can help tackle them as part of your team.

Special thanks to the experts who shared their insights and experiences on this panel discussion at NEXT 2023:

  • Cory Gardner: Director of Engineering at Shearer Foods
  • Greg Jacob: Senior Vice President at ProMach
  • Daniel LoRusso: Director of Sales, Upgrades and Systems, North America at BW Integrated Systems
  • Peter Twigg: Director, Automation Corporate Engineering at Maple Leaf Foods
  • Ken VonderHaar: Global Director for Vertical Operations for Cans at Anheuser-Busch

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