Future-proofing production: COVID’s impact on manufacturing
Marcus Behrendt, Partner, BMW i Ventures, discusses how manufacturing organisations can future-proof there production operations amidst COVID-19.
Now is the perfect time to automate. It’s bold advice, as so many in the sector grapple with uncertain futures – and to be sure, the future is indeed uncertain for all of us in manufacturing. But if your uncertainty is around when and not if your factory will reopen and production will kick off again, now is the time to make important changes that will take your manufacturing operations from vulnerable to immune as we brace for the next inevitable disruption.
So often, manufacturers have well thought through plans as to when they’ll automate elements of their production line. They know it’s a sound investment in the future and an opportunity to reduce costs, increase output and optimize quality, representing returns that can be harvested down the road, but the cost of shutting down production to deploy next generation automation means missing out of harvesting more immediate returns. So, they wait.
But now, with day-to-day business at a standstill, there’s never been a better time to future-proof manufacturing through modernization – and there’s never been a better example in context of the myriad ways next generation automation can protect manufacturers from increased exposure when disaster does hit.
Anything that’s true of the benefits of intelligent and flexible automation in normal circumstances is doubly true now: it enables more efficiency, lowers cost, increases output and quality – and importantly, it lowers reliance on manual labor. In a crisis like the one we’re all experiencing now, the more self-sufficient manufacturing processes are, the less they’ll be affected by unexpected changes in circumstance, such as a sudden shift in the availability of the workforce.
As we all talk about Industry 4.0 nowadays, we should also start thinking about Automation 4.0. Automation in the past might have been independent of labor-related influences, but it was, and still is, far from flexible. It was quite an effort to adapt to changes when needed. But there are new possibilities in automation when it’s powered by software – it offers more dynamic, flexible lines, with changeovers that happen at the touch of a button, as exemplified by the technology of one of our portfolio companies, Bright Machines. This software-defined approach to manufacturing enables a more agile response to demand. As we’re seeing in real-time as manufacturers work to shift their factory floors to address not only shifting consumer demands, but the pressing needs of healthcare providers, the ability to quickly reconfigure a production line cannot be undervalued.
Solving for Supply Chain Complexities
Those in the electronics manufacturing industry will remember well the impact that the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011 had on the global supply chain. That was one localized crisis, but it had massive global repercussions. Now, we’re dealing with a global outbreak that’s affecting every place, every nation. But it presumably strikes at different times with differing severity, making the recovery for supply chains completely unpredictable.
The case for scalable, intelligent automation solutions that enable more localized production has never been more clear – and in fact, this has been a discussion point for OEMs well before COVID became a household name. I’m optimistic that supply chains will show resilience and that going forward, the concept of decentralized, localized production will come into clearer focus for manufacturing as an industry. What we’re quickly learning is that shipping products around the globe to save a penny today, might not pay off in these times of crisis.
It’s always been a concern for OEMs, especially in complex situations like auto manufacturing, that the complexity of the supply chain will lead to issues when a group of suppliers hasn’t planned well enough for the unexpected, and that the production cycle will be thrown off. The more manufacturers throughout the supply chain are able to better prepare themselves and their lines through implementing flexible, smart automation, the more likely they’ll be able to weather any storm, whether it’s a tsunami, a pandemic, or a trade war.
The Time to Automate Is Now
There are of course some who won’t be able to weather this particular storm; it’s a tough time for the world, and those in manufacturing aren’t exempt. That said, if you are confident in your future, I urge you to consider seeing this downtime as the perfect time to rethink your approach and move forward with next generation automation plans.
The bottom line: anyone who invests in software-defined automation now – while production allows, because of unforeseen downtime – will be ready to answer the call when things do return to normal, whatever that new normal might look like.
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Fluent.ai x BSH: Voice Automating the Assembly Line
Fluent.ai has deployed its voice recognition solutions in one of BSH’s German factories. BSH leads the market in producing connected appliances—its brands include Bosch, Siemens, Gaggenau, NEFF, and Thermador, and with this new partnership, the company intends to cut transition time in its assembly lines.
According to BSH, voice automation will yield 75-100% efficiency gains—but it’s the collaboration between the two companies that stands out. ‘After considering 11 companies for this partnership, we chose Fluent.ai because of their key competitive differentiators’, explained Ion Hauer, Venture Partner at BSH Startup Kitchen.
What Sets Fluent.ai Apart?
After seven years of research, the company developed a wide range of artificial intelligence (AI) software products to help original equipment manufacturers (OEM) expand their services. Three key aspects stood out to BSH, which operates across the world and in unique factory environments.
- Robust noise controls. The system can operate even in loud conditions.
- Low latency. The AI understands commands quickly and accurately.
- Multilingual support. BSH can expand the automation to any of its 50+ country operations.
How Voice Automation Works
Instead of pressing buttons, BSH factory workers will now be able to speak into a headset fitted with Fluent.ai’s voice recognition technology. After uttering a WakeWord, workers can use a command to start assembly line movement. As the technology is hands-free, workers benefit from less physical strain, which will both reduce employee fatigue and boost line production.
‘Implementing Fluent’s technology has already improved efficiencies within our factory, with initial implementation of the solution cutting down the transition time from four seconds to one and a half”, said Markus Maier, Project Lead at the BSH factory. ‘In the long run, the production time savings will be invaluable’.
Future Global Adoption
In the coming years, BSH and Fluent.ai will continue to push for artificial intelligence on factory lines, pursuing efficiency, ergonomics, and a healthy work environment. ‘We started with Fluent.ai on one factory assembly line, moved to three, and [are now] considering rolling the technology out worldwide’, said Maier.
Said Probal Lala, Fluent.ai’s CEO: ‘We are thrilled to be working with BSH, a company at the forefront of innovation. Seeing your solution out in the real world is incredibly rewarding, and we look forward to continuing and growing our collaboration’.