Process Automation: How Small Steps Lead to Large Productivity

Utterance of the word “automation” may conjure the image of a manufacturing facility with machines operating at full speed and robots rolling from point to point, carrying parts. Or maybe it triggers excitement about that one-click Excel trick that saves you five minutes every day. Automation’s scope is vast, and for many companies, its power is unknown.

We humans—in companies of all sizes—will always be challenged by time, resources and the mental resilience for constant improvement. Part of the problem is that when we’re faced with a challenge, we automatically jump to the big picture, the end result—that lights-out-manufacturing view. It’s hard to hold on to such complex thoughts. When we stop to dissect the issue and understand the steps: the people, the cost, etc.—that one-click-Excel-trick view—we realize that a series of small improvements can lead to large productivity. Automation, of any scale, is no different.

This article provides a high-level view of three hows and one why to implement process automation: the removal of manual steps that add time in finishing a project. We’ll also see why companies fail to implement automation, and why a culture of automation can improve employee retention. Much of the context is geared toward engineers, but we feel that the advice is relatable across departments.

The expert to whom we turned for this topic is Edwin Chung, Director of Engineering Services at SPK and Associates, an information technology company specializing in the needs of medical device R&D and engineering groups. We were introduced to Chung’s insight when reading an SPK white paper, titled “Reaching Target Product Launch Dates and Increasing Engineer Morale with Automation.” The title matches the challenges we often hear from you and your peers. We wanted to learn more.

How to Decide What to Automate

One of the most common reasons that individuals and companies don’t implement more automation is that they don’t know what to automate; they aren’t asking the right questions, Chung says. He recommends that you start by looking at repetitive tasks, like data entry.

Device company engineers know how cumbersome it can be to record data for FDA and ISO compliance. Chung’s experience has taught him that engineers feel like they’re wasting time inputting data into their engineering change order (ECO).

“Everyone is measuring ECO turnaround time for the agility of the company,” he says. “Let’s reduce the ECO turnaround time by taking the revision information and the part number in the ECO and automate, extracting that from the SolidWorks file or CAD files. Each time we do that, in addition to reducing errors, we’re going to save the engineer three minutes, five minutes, 10 minutes times your number of ECOs.”

That’s one example. The aforementioned SPK white paper suggests areas to examine to determine whether your task can be automated. Consider this a check list:

Repeatability: You wouldn’t want to put automation efforts into a task you do once or twice. Think of tasks that you perform hundreds or even thousands of times.

Stability: It’s difficult to automate tasks that constantly change. It can be done in some cases, but you have to ask if it’s worth the time investment.

Complexity: Automation shouldn’t be technical, Chung says. Simple and quick tasks are the easiest to automate. Like stability, complex tasks can be automated, but you must consider if it’s worth the time and money investment.

Wastefulness: One can argue that an engineer having to copy and paste a product part number from one spreadsheet to another over and over is a waste of their intellect and talent. Does the process you’re trying to automate waste the time and talent of your employees and therefore, add expense?

How to Consider Automation Cost

Cost and return on investment should always be considered in automation conversations, Chung says. He cautions that when you hear the word automation, you don’t immediately think about the millions of dollars factory floor investment. If you’re an engineer seeking process efficiencies, look at the layers of the project in front of you. Can you automate a percentage of your process by employing unused tools of your current software, or leveraging insight from your colleagues? If you can, cost might be inconsequential to the conversation.

Chung is a proponent of asking others about their experiences, whether it is your vendor, application users on message boards or the colleague sitting next to you.

“Maybe there is an engineer on your team who is already doing some form of automation,” he says. “What they need to do is share it with the rest of the team.”

How to Implement Automation

Once you’ve identified that a process can be automated, there are best practices to consider when implementing the automation steps. Chung recommends the following questions:

  • What are the smallest pieces that we can automate?
  • Which steps generate the most return on investment?
  • Which steps can we finish the fastest?
  • Which pieces should we tackle first to build support inside our company?
  • Which pieces generate the most visible return?
  • Which ones generate the most invisible return?

The decision to automate must involve collaboration amongst your team members and others within your company whom it could impact. What might be good for you may not be good for someone else.

“A challenge that we run into in our fast paced world is that it’s not just about giving you the information correctly; it is about getting it to you at the right time,” Chung says. “If I give it to you too soon, you’re busy, and if I give it to you later, it’s too late.”

Why You Should Consider a Culture of Automation

The benefits of automation are widely known: reduced costs, increased productivity and increased quality. Chung suggests that the strongest argument for implementing process automation is attracting and retaining top talent within your organization.

“People don’t want to spend their time doing repetitive tasks,” he says, adding that they want to be interacting with colleagues and customers. “I absolutely believe that engineers say, ‘Geez, the worst part about this [project] is waiting for something to happen or doing this same thing one hundred times.' ”

He recommends that managers consider the repetitiveness of a task and whether there’s a better solution than delegating it to an engineer. “As a manager, I want to be aware of what my engineers enjoy doing; I want to look for opportunities to do what they enjoy and less of what they don’t enjoy.”

After all, when people are optimized, they have a better chance of clearly seeing the big picture.

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