Mention the term ‘automation’ and it’s likely to conjure up images of car production lines or Amazon-style warehouses. Sophisticated robotic equipment completes tasks without the need for human intervention and in a fraction of the time it took in the past.
A range of technologies are poised to take this automation even further. Developments such as 5G mobile networks and the internet of things (IoT) will allow processes and techniques to be used that are currently only a pipedream.
What about the back office?
Despite all this progress, there remains one place where automation is sadly lacking: the back-office. According to a recent study by consulting firm McKinsey1, the manufacturing sector is one of the most automated sectors yet, somewhat paradoxically, it is also one of the sectors with the highest potential for further automation. Current heavy reliance on manual back-office processes in many factories is a major reason for this paradox.
Manufacturing process automation is about using digital solutions to replicate a variety of currently manual, back-office tasks. It uses a range of technologies to perform jobs that previously would rely on paper and people.
It’s all about digitisation
By deploying workflow creation tools, it becomes possible to digitise a wide range of tasks that previously would have been carried out by administrators, accountants, office managers, and HR departments.
By putting in place manufacturing automation technology, many of the activities which would typically take up hours of staff time can be automatically completed by the software. This, in turn, saves the time of office-based staff and allows them to focus on tasks that deliver more value.
Putting automation to work
There are some very practical areas in which process automation technology can add significant value in a manufacturer’s back office. The top five include:
More efficient inventory management:
Manufacturing automation tools can be used to automatically reorder inventory when stocks are running low. For example, each time an employee takes goods out of the warehouse, this can be logged within the system. An automated workflow can then determine whether fresh inventory is required, and automatically purchase more of the items needed. This saves back-office staff significant time and reduces the chances of the shelves running bare.
Better onboarding of suppliers:
When a business begins dealing with a new supplier, there is a range of paperwork that has to be completed. Ensuring documents are filled in and properly signed is important for contractual and legal reasons.
This is where document automation can assist. All the needed paperwork can be automatically sent to the new supplier, who is then able to sign it digitally. Signatures and other details can all be verified independently by the system.
Streamlined human resources:
Many factories must regularly hire large numbers of temporary staff to deal with seasonal fluctuations in demand. This means that manufacturing company HR departments are typically very busy searching for labour and creating relevant employment documents.
Manufacturing automation solutions can readily make this entire process much more streamlined and efficient. All required documents can be produced automatically and stored securely. This also ensures the business is in compliance with all rules and regulations relating to employment.
Improved accounting and finance functions:
The finance departments within manufacturing companies rely heavily on manual data entry, communications, and spreadsheets to ensure that suppliers get paid, and customers are paying invoices on time. For many finance departments, these processes continue to rely on a mix of paperwork and manual data entry. This means there is real potential for errors, mistakes, and data loss.
Here, process automation technology can significantly streamline these workflows. As an example, robotic process automation (RPA) technology can carry out a wide variety of data entry jobs, repeating tasks indefinitely without ever getting tired or needing a holiday.
Better research and development processes:
Research and development within manufacturing companies tends to rely heavily on manual workflows. From approvals for funding to creating patent applications, R&D can be held up by paper-based processes. If it relies on staff receiving paper applications or filling in forms, there is a high potential for the process to be slowed down.
Projects can be completed more quickly, adding additional value to the business, once processes are streamlined and automated.
Australia’s manufacturing sector stands to gain significant benefits from the implementation of process automation tools. Operational costs can be reduced, levels of customer service increased, and staff freed up to focus on value-adding tasks that can’t be automated.
Perhaps process automation should be high on your to-do list for 2022.