Analysis and Commentary

Leadership in factory automation – the automation race by Simon Dawson

Analysis and Commentary

Today in our editorial series Leadership in factory automation, we hear from Simon Dawson who knows first hand how Australian manufacturers are running the automation race. And for those still in the pre-race warm up, he tells you how to lead out of the starting blocks.

It’s no secret that the world of manufacturing is changing.

Not only is technology advancing, but adoption rates of robotics, automation and other assistive technologies are accelerating at a rapid pace.

Even if your sector isn’t currently technology and automation driven, it will be.

As a manufacturing leader, you hold the key to making sure your business is ready for this acceleration – ready to adapt and run with ideas that will help you automate and compete in the new world.
Understand the potential for your organisation.

In my role as Director of Industrial Transformation at IMCRC, I lead the CRC’s futuremap program, designed to help manufacturing leaders assess their current and aspirational business capabilities and maturity and chart their transition to Industry 4.0.

Insights from more than 650 manufacturers who participated in futuremap show that although 100 per cent say they will increase their investment in key enabling technologies (such as smart robotics, sensors and data analytics) in the next two years, close to 40 per cent admit that they currently do not have the strategic plans in place to deliver on this ambition.

The futuremap data also reveals a possible explanation. Across the same group, less than a third are confident that they understand the competitive advantages of Industry 4.0.

If we consider the many challenges faced by manufacturing SMEs, particularly in the last two years, it is perhaps not a surprise that without understanding the benefits of enabling technologies and automation, it is difficult to move from a stated ambition to a deliverable plan.

So, as a first step it is important to fully understand the potential of Industry 4.0, link it with your business’ vision and strategy and establish where automation and technology can deliver value to you and your stakeholders.

Find your starting point

Having confirmed the value-add for the business, the next challenge becomes finding the best place to start. With a multitude of options available, manufacturers need to avoid being held back by the paradox of choice, which often complicates things and leads to decisions being deferred.

In futuremap workshops, I often talk about the benefits of identifying a safe and low cost starting point. An initial, small-scale investment in a research project, for instance, could not only offer you a short-term gain, but also test your organisation’s readiness for the longer journey in terms of skills, capabilities and collaborators.

As an example, Victorian top of bed manufacturer and IMCRC partner SleepCorp has embraced digital technologies to transform and future-proof their manufacturing operations.

In 2019, SleepCorp embarked on a research project with Swinburne University. Tapping into the university’s expertise, and with the help of digital twin software and virtual reality displays, they identified potential stress points within SleepCorp’s existing production runs which enabled the company to invest in the right assistive technologies.

SleepCorp have continued their journey and integrated operations from tailoring, cutting, sewing to packaging in one Virtual Manufacturing System linked to the company’s Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Data Analysis systems.

As a result of the research, SleepCorp decided to design and setup a new, smart factory outside Melbourne which allows them to respond to customer and market changes with speed, quality, and flexibility.

Make innovation your skillset

Many of the SMEs we work with at IMCRC are running several races at once – with three or four R&D projects in different markets. That is because they have understood that in a time of rapid change, the ability to innovate and transform is a critical skillset.

Whilst the traditional skills of lean manufacturing remain important within the core operations of a manufacturer, these typically look to iterate rather than innovate. World class manufacturing requires a leadership team that drive both.

Byron Kennedy and Steven Camilleri, founders of additive manufacturer and IMCRC partner SPEE3D, have a long history of commercialising innovative technologies. Using metal cold spray technology, they radically simplified the production process of metal parts.

In the early days, however, the accuracy of the technology was low, requiring post-machining of the parts in a CNC mill. They engaged the University of Technology of Sydney (UTS) to automate the process by developing 3D scanning technology, which, using image sensing, will digitally acquire the shape printed by the machine.

Since the successful completion of the project, and seeing the potential of the technology, SPEE3D has continued to keep innovation at their core. They have invested in research, innovation and talent to be able to adjust, automate and upscale their technology for a broad range of Australian and global industry applications, ensuring they remain at the leading edge in their field.

Communicate your vision

According to futuremap insights, while 60 per cent of manufacturers are aware of Industry 4.0, only 25 per cent discuss this topic regularly with their leadership team. And only 23 per cent of manufacturers said they communicated their strategies with staff.

I believe it is critical for leaders to step up and make discussions around digital strategy a key part of their management agenda to ensure that this logic is cascaded. All of the business needs to see and understand what role they can play in advancing technology.

Of course, with the next generation of digitially natives entering the workplace it is highly likely that they will be asking uncomfortable questions if leadership is not engaging on this topic.

Thus, the message here is that the technology race is an inevitable one and manufacturers need to at a minimum be going through their own automation warm up.

Taking some initial steps and thinking through the strategic options, will help all manufactures to identify what kind of a race they want to run and to understanding what prizes are on offer.

These are exciting times.

Picture: Simon Dawson

Simon Dawson spent 30 years in senior positions across manufacturing prior to becoming Director, Industrial Transformation at the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre. He led the establishment of Walkinshaw Automotive’s new facility in Victoria, as well as roles in fast moving consumer goods, industrial, rail and medical devices. He holds a Master of Engineering degree and an MBA.

@AuManufacturing’s editorial series – Leadership in factory automation – is brought to you with the support of Bosch Australia Manufacturing Solutions, and the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre.

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