Australian manufacturers face a unique set of evolving challenges. Greg Eyre says they must embrace Industry 4.0 to remain competitive, avoid missing opportunities and drive change more sustainably.
Australian manufacturers face constantly evolving challenges, particularly from changing government policies, international trade wars and growing environmental concerns – all of which are causing significant paradigm shifts across the sector. Significant skills shortages, new competitors, growing cyber threats and evolving customer needs are adding to the complexity.
Manufacturers and suppliers must embrace Industry 4.0 to remain competitive, monetise the opportunities new technologies bring and drive change faster, safer and more reliably. Increasing efficiencies and productivity through digital transformation is crucial to remain competitive. Key to addressing these challenges is the automation of a wider range of processes within manufacturing. Of course, automation certainly isn’t new to manufacturing. It’s been widely deployed by manufacturers for many years within factories to streamline and speed up operations, reduce error and ensure health and safety.
With advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), physical robots within smart factories will become even more sophisticated, increasingly carrying out tasks that require intelligence in terms of sensing and vision. More importantly, their actions will be directed by AI incorporated into the systems that are directing production through IoT devices, to create more efficient and sustainable supply chains.
Just as there’s been a significant shift in the role of factory workers away from production lines and fulfilling orders towards managing robots, we’re now seeing a shift towards digital workers taking on the execution of core office processes. This allows human workers to move into roles that focus entirely on critical decision making and planning.
The role of digital workers
Through the deployment of robotic process automation (RPA), digital workers (or software robots) augment the human workforce. They mimic the way humans perform the predictable, repetitive, tedious and error-prone portions of business processes. Since digital workers follow programmed rules, they automatically improve process quality, efficiency, consistency, accuracy and compliance. Just as importantly, they allow manufacturers to do more with less, freeing up employees’ time to focus on tasks that require uniquely human qualities – such as emotional intelligence, reasoning, judgement and direct customer interaction.
While RPA within manufacturing has traditionally been perceived as a tactical means to reduce costs and eliminate inefficient processes, it’s now evolving into something far more strategic and meaningful. Intelligent automation (IA) – combining RPA with AI – is now enabling manufacturers to automate a far wider range of processes, in a fast, effective and secure way.
Linked to this, the AI capabilities included in IA platforms are opening up new possibilities to connect processes smoothly across functions and systems, as well as bring together disparate data. This is eliminating errors and, importantly, enabling manufacturers to press ahead with their digital transformation programs.
On the factory floor, machines and components are capturing essential data that’s often trapped within systems that aren’t easily accessible. Digital workers provide a fast, agile way to access data collected by equipment and machinery, as well as integrate with any system without the need for APIs. They also gather data from assorted sensors, standardise the formatting, facilitate the use of algorithms to provide predictive maintenance and then take relevant actions to minimise downtime.
Data captured by IoT devices such as factory equipment and RFID tags can be collated, aggregated, analysed and acted upon by digital workers in conjunction with machine learning. This increases productivity, improves process efficiency and drives down costs. Parts, components and products can be tracked throughout the production cycle.
Improve customer journey
Customers are increasingly expecting a seamless digital and personalised experience, from initial ordering to accurate status updates and delivery confirmation. Legacy applications and a lack of visibility across disparate systems in the supply chain makes this a significant challenge, as manufacturers seek to provide a frictionless and highly transparent customer journey.
IA improves customer experience through more efficient order and invoice processing, more responsive customer service and enhanced quality assurance. It enables greater integration across multiple systems for improved speed and visibility.
Robust supplier management
Maintaining and managing complex supplier relationships is critical to an effective supply chain and efficient production. Optimising supplier performance, ensuring cost effectiveness and monitoring supplier adherence to regulatory and ethical requirements is a challenge. IA enables manufacturers to oversee their supplier portfolio and proactively manage performance through onboarding, contract management, performance management and consistent execution of regulatory compliance checks. This ensures suppliers are meeting all obligations and internal requirements.
Optimise the supply chain
Managing global supply chains with multiple suppliers operating on different systems across major regional regulatory differences is a complex task. End-to-end visibility can be limited and the manual effort of maintaining accurate data can be a mammoth task.
Digital workers enable seamless supplier integration, with the ability to update multiple systems accurately and efficiently. This ensures standardisation of data across the supply chain and speeds up processing. Automation of order, inventory and shipment tracking processes increases accuracy and productivity, freeing up labour to concentrate on more complex logistical tasks.
The manufacturing sector is one of the most targeted industries globally for cyberattacks. Expanding the number of technological touchpoints across an organisation naturally increases security risks. This has limited the investment in Industry 4.0 in some areas.
Digital workers help overcome these challenges and concerns by minimising the risk of human vulnerability and increasing auditability. Just as with a human workforce, however, a digital workforce also requires security, oversight and governance and have built in strict controls regarding how they are configured, as well as how changes are managed and approved.
Respond to regulation faster
Regulatory changes across multiple geographies can be difficult to react to, comply with and measure performance against.
A digital workforce enables manufacturers to quickly and efficiently comply with new regulations and amend existing processes when required. Customer and supplier data can be accurately managed in-line with regional legislation, as well as remain agile enough to change locations, suppliers or production where market events or trends warrant it.
IA is truly establishing itself as a game changing, strategic business technology, with the potential to transform the way that any manufacturer can run its entire operations, service its customers and expand its services. It’s vital that Australian business leaders reset their ambitions around automation and ensure they have the governance structures, skills and agile technology platforms in place to take full advantage.
Greg Eyre is VP ANZ for Blue Prism