Be honest. When you think of automation technology, what do you think of? If you’re picturing big companies automating their entire facility, robots everywhere you look, and huge investments that require massive budgets, you’re not alone.

But if you’re a Small or Medium Manufacturer (SMM), that image can make automation seem out of reach. And as a result, many smaller companies are hesitant to make investments in automation. Industry Week suggests that SMMs are the least likely to take advantage of the potential ROI from this technology.

But there’s good news. Automation technology is accessible to companies of all sizes. And getting started with automation technology doesn’t mean you have to look like the biggest players overnight, or even at all.

With a big picture view of your facility and an understanding of where small changes can have the most impact, you’ll be able to identify the low hanging fruit that lets you achieve big results from investments that are affordable and sustainable for your business.

Where will automation have the most impact?

Look around your facility and see where there are issues that can be solved with automation. These could be processes that require accuracy and repeatability, equipment that is frequently down for maintenance and repairs, or bottlenecks that cause equipment to sit idle. You might also identify changeover or scheduling issues that lead to unnecessary downtime, or layout issues that require work-in-progress to be moved by workers over a long distance.

Often, the people who are on the manufacturing floor on a day-to-day basis have knowledge that is invaluable to this process. They may see inefficiencies or other issues that cause problems you were previously unaware of.

Once you’ve identified the ways you could improve, select the ones that provide the most return for the lowest cost. These are the low hanging fruit, and the areas you should start with to get the most benefits from your investment.

Do you understand the true costs of your facility?

To understand the ROI of a potential automation project, you have to understand the true costs of automating vs. not automating. Many companies are intimidated because of the perceived upfront capital costs that are required, but these costs need to be compared against the real costs of your current processes. If you’re just paying the bills without paying attention to where you are spending money, you’re potentially missing out on a big opportunity to save.

Of course, labour cost is always at the top of mind, but some costs may be more difficult to quantify. These could include excess scrap and material waste from rejected products. Downtime and maintenance costs, which can often appear to be routine, can also be a big cost if a specific piece of equipment is constantly in need of repairs. Even seemingly mundane activities, such as excess material or labour movement or time lost searching for the right tools or components can all quickly add up into huge losses in productivity.

On the other side of the equation, you need to understand the scope of your automation initiative. Many companies dive head first into buying a new piece of equipment before realizing that there is much more that needs to be done to solve the problem. For example, while a new technology may increase throughput, that only matters if the processes and equipment it depends on up the line can keep up.

Introducing automation in a way that improves your business

Automation isn’t limited to the big players anymore. In fact, SMMs are well positioned to benefit because a few well placed and well thought-out investments in specific areas can have an immediate and lasting impact.

Knowing when to automate means taking a big picture view of one of your processes, or, if possible, your entire facility. It requires you and your team to embrace a mindset of incremental improvement through small steps and build a culture of measuring the effectiveness of these improvements.

The idea here is to begin with reporting, tracking, data, and the ability to measure the performance of your current process. This will help you understand how changes in one area may lead to positive or negative consequences in others and whether automation will have a positive impact on your business.

And don’t be afraid if you don’t have all of this information right away. You likely know enough to identify where the low hanging fruit are. An experienced automation company will be able to help you with the planning and design work so that you understand the scope of what’s needed to achieve your goals.

Once you’ve achieved results from these initiatives, you’ll be able to decide whether it’s worthwhile to allocate more resources to other areas that can be improved to continue to optimize your facility. That’s how small and medium manufacturers can reap the benefits of automation.