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The Importance of Automation in Modern Manufacturing

The Importance of Automation in Modern Manufacturing

The manufacturing industry has made massive technological strides in the last decade, with significant advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, robotics, and automation.

While there is an abundance of cutting-edge technology to help companies scale and grow, many businesses have yet to fully integrate comprehensive automation into their precision machine shops.

Automation can be a controversial topic among machinists. However, its adoption is paramount for any manufacturing company seeking to remain competitive in the 21st century.

Automation Does Not Eliminate the Need for Machinists

Before we dig into the benefits of automation, let’s address the elephant in the factory: the fear that automation eliminates the need for machinists.

This concern is understandable, but I don’t believe it to be the case. Manufacturing might have its roots in scientific fact, but it’s still an art form that requires human intelligence and critical thinking. If anything, automated operations empower and assist the human workforce. New technology supports and increases a machinist’s ability to ensure higher quality, better repeatability, and more efficiency.

Jobs on the production shop floor usually fall into three categories: setup/programming, operation, and inspection. Automation has the potential to replace some or all functions of the operating stage, freeing up machinists to take on more nuanced work in the setup and inspection stages. That means they’ll need additional education and training to hone their programming skills and broaden their proficiency with inspection instrumentation.

Shops must be in a position to deliver these opportunities to our workforce. In turn, we can expect greater success in recruiting and retention. As the role of a machinist shifts, these positions will be more attractive to workers seeking advanced responsibilities and high-impact, fulfilling work.

While the function of a machinist will inevitably evolve, these valuable workers will continue to be critical to the industry’s success.

5 Benefits of Integrating Automation Into Your Operations

Automation doesn’t only impact machinists; there are automation opportunities for warehouse management and customer service systems, too. We can look to giants such as Amazon to see what’s possible and think comprehensively about incorporating automation across all business verticals.

Automation yields many benefits in all areas of business, including:

  • Driving opportunities to scale successfully
  • Improving efficiency and productivity
  • Optimizing administrative support
  • Hiring and training employees to do higher-level tasks
  • Addressing the labor shortage and skills gap

But despite these compelling benefits, many companies, including mine, have historically been slow to adopt groundbreaking automation technologies. It’s time to overcome those obstacles and catch up.

3 Reasons Why Manufacturers Are Hesitant to Adopt Automation

There are three main reasons manufacturers are hesitant to integrate automation:

1. Lack of demand

Automation is crucial for higher volume orders. When there’s more repetitive work and you need to balance scale with volume, you’ll see a return on your automation investment.

Many shops, including ours, produce custom, precision components. Most of our customers, for example, need prototypes or low-to-mid-volume production. These specialized orders don’t require the repetition and scale that necessitates automating the production process.

For example, a cobot is excellent at automated inspection, but a machinist must set it up and program it for every new job. If companies don’t have a critical volume of parts to inspect on each job, they’ll see fewer efficiency gains.

2. Insufficient capital

Automation tools and services are expensive to install and integrate. Simply put, it costs money to buy advanced technology, and it costs time to train skilled workers to operate the new tools.

The pandemic has exacerbated cash flow challenges among manufacturers, and companies in “survival mode” don’t have the financial resources to invest in innovation right now.

3. Resistance to change

The older generation of business owners are masters at their craft—they’ve been successfully machining parts for 30-50 years and see no need to change operations. Many industry veterans are understandably loyal to the processes they’ve used over the years.

Additionally, automation companies often provide their own data during sales presentations, so there’s a lack of independent and trustworthy research about what specific automation tools and technologies can do.

It’s challenging to convince senior management to invest tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars in technology when the ROI is promised but unproven.

A Realistic Approach to Integrating Automation

Manufacturing leaders might think they aren’t ready to integrate more automation into their operations because of current demand, cost, or company culture—but there is always the next step forward.

We’re not trying to get ahead of the technological curve at Heinz, but we are committed to catching up.

We like identifying how we can improve every job, asking questions like, “Can we run more parts per operation?” “How can we relieve an operator from a machine and train them to do more nuanced work?”

We know that consistent improvement and efficiency are fundamental to competing in this market, but we don’t believe in incorporating advanced technologies as “all or nothing” investments.

Instead, we focus on improving our technical aptitude by incrementally integrating more automation.

Let’s look at what a gradual progression towards automation in machine shops could look like:

  • Start with CNC. Today, CNC machines are essential to a healthy and thriving production shop.
  • Add in multi-axis machines. The next step is investing in multi-axis machines that combine milling and turning operations to maximize efficiency.
  • Incorporate robotics. Robotic arms and cobots (smaller robotic arms) can immediately improve and accelerate inspection and finishing processes such as thread checking and deburring.
  • Integrate predictive maintenance. Shops can leverage automated machine monitoring and maintenance systems to reduce cycle time and keep cutting tools sharp.
  • Automate backend and frontend work. Most manufacturing companies already use enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, but we can further customize these systems to increase our teams’ productivity. Automating front-end work like estimating can further increase efficiency and help turn around quotes more quickly.

We must embrace and incorporate modern technologies. Not only is Industry 4.0 quickly becoming table stakes for operations in our industry, but automation will also help us survive the labor shortage and the skills gap.

Every manufacturer—no matter the size—has opportunities to integrate automation into their shop. We must work to blend the science of advanced technologies with the art of human intelligence to meet our customers’ demands and reach our business goals.

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This article was written by Osei Appiagyei
Osei Appiagyei is the CEO of Heinz Engineering, a world-class aerospace and defense precision CNC machining company located in Gardena, CA.