Process Automation: what it is, how to do it and the challenges

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This article is the result of an interview with our partner Sysmaq. Edson Pereira, our project manager, interviewed Ricardo Denardi, Project Manager at Sysmaq.

Digital Transformation is known for implementing technologies to improve traditional business processes, both internal and external, and in different areas of companies. However, Digital Transformation goes far beyond the implementation of new technologies, it is a market strategy that must be employed in companies as a whole and an agile mindset to be adopted by employees.

Introducing this new strategy, coupled with behavior and mindset changes, has the power to accelerate Digital Transformation, making the company and its processes faster and more competitive. This change of mindset is not necessarily about how to digitize processes, but about seeing opportunities for improvement and finding a solution that not only solves the problem, but that brings innovation and other benefits to the company — such as cost reduction, increased employee welfare, reduction of steps in a process, among other things.

One of the areas where we hear the most about Digital Transformation is manufacturing, in which this process has gained its own name, Industry 4.0. Industry 4.0 is the implementation of new technologies in the production line and manufacturing related processes. In many cases, the intent of its implementation is to lower costs and to automate and accelerate production in the factories.

With economic and geopolitical changes, acceleration of construction and transformation of connected factories has increased. According to Ricardo Denardi, “this means that there are investments for new plants and production lines already in compliance with Industry 4.0 standards. The [COVID-19] pandemic accelerated the digitization processes of companies due to the need for health and competitiveness as a whole.”

We at Venturus, a Research and Development Institute, work with innovation and serve companies of different sizes in the manufacturing field, especially those who want help in the Digital Transformation of their production line. Along with Sysmaq, Venturus’s partner in industrial automation projects, we will show what it is like to turn your conventional factory into a connected one.

What is process automation?

According to Ricardo Denardi, automation is any type of device that can bring comfort, information or improvement in any activity you are performing That is, it goes from robotic arms with the ability to operate an entire assembly process, artificial intelligence able to make quick decisions based on data collected from the machine itself to software that automatically fills-in information on an invoice form.

A fully automated factory floor would have software and hardware working together to accelerate the activities that are being performed. One of the benefits that Digital Transformation brings to a production line is the amount of data that can be collected through the implementation of automated processes and Artificial Intelligence.

This data helps not only in quick decision-making, but also in predictive line maintenance, production improvement, among other points that, depending on the data collected, allow a company to get the most out of its Digital Transformation.

Automation in Brazil

As discussed previously, automation can be employed in several ways. Factories located in Brazil have already been adapting to the international Industry 4.0 model. Brazil is not yet a country with many robots in production lines, but Ricardo Denardi affirms that, in 20 years, the transformation will be complete.

There are international standards and specifications for creating connected factories — it is critical that they are followed for a good design result. Currently, there is no Industry 4.0 project that does not follow international requirements

However, the needs of each market and each country are different. While countries like China value speed of execution of isolated activities in their production lines — enabling mass production of the same product — in Brazil, there is a trend of equipment that combines speed, flexibility and adaptability.

Here, a piece of equipment cannot be customized to the point of performing only one action, because the ways of working and the products being assembled change with frequency and, when these changes happen, the equipment would become obsolete. Therefore, a single machine should be able to do more than one action or make more than one product, depending on the factory, improving the cost-benefit and ROI of the entire production line automation process.

What is an automation project like, after all?

Before we understand its steps, let’s explain what an automation project is in broad terms. The project can go from a software on a computer that performs the automatic filling of information to the construction of a completely automated production line, with robotic arms performing repetitive activity, packaging and reading while operators do less manual labor or even maintenance of the machines themselves.

As mentioned previously, Digital Transformation is not only the implementation of robots and software that automate some process, it is also a change of corporate mindset. Thus, it is extremely important to involve everyone who will be affected by the automation of a production line in the transformation process. With this change in thinking and behavior, companies that are more traditional are able to transform, simplify and improve processes without neglecting their essence. It is possible to increase the quality of life of operators, reduce assembly time, reduce cost and waste in production, among many other possibilities.

Thus, it is essential that the solution is customized to meet the needs of the company as a whole — business aspects as well as processes and people. To help visualization of something so “futuristic”, there are tools for simulations and PoC (Proof of Concept) — projects that try to verify a concept before it is developed in larger scale — to validate the solution before implementation begins. Even with the research, investigation, preparatory and simulation phases, some adjustments will be needed during the process, but that is already accounted for in the plan.

Steps of an automation project

Our Project Manager, Edson Pereira, oversees manufacturing projects and, especially, manufacturing automation projects. Both Edson and Ricardo explain that, firstly, there is a stage of research and investigation. This step is of utmost importance so that, during the project, all targets that the automation must meet are taken into account so that the customer is satisfied with the delivery of the final solution.

At Venturus, the first thing we do in the research and investigation step is to go to the factory floor and analyze the manual operation that will be automated (if it already exists). Talking with operators, understanding the positive aspects of the process and those that need to be improved helps in creating a possible automation.

After the research phase, we go to the preparatory phase of the project, in which operators, customers — everyone who is involved in the process to be automated — and Venturus employees work together. At this stage, information is also collected from all those involved and the first ideas are launched.

The development phase of the project is divided into some steps, but, depending on what is expected in the delivery, it is not necessary to go through all the stages. The mechanical machining part is made at the preparatory stage of the project. In this step, whatever will be needed for the project (robotic arm, some part, among others) is designed and built. Then, with the equipment ready, it is necessary to assemble the mechanical, electrical and pneumatic parts. Software development is done in parallel to this process and installation is done after assembly.

After the development phase is finished, comes the testing stage. In this step, many tests are done, with the design device hot from the production line, to validate its mechanical, electrical, pneumatic and software parts. Finally, small adjustments are made for project delivery.

After each project is delivered, it is very important to also hold a retrospective meeting and identify the lessons learned from the process. With this, it is possible to raise positive points of the delivered project, what can be improved for future projects, in addition to being important to map project trends to keep an eye on what is to come.

Conclusion

Digital Transformation is a recurring subject when we think about the future of companies, regardless of the segment to which they belong. Industry 4.0 is the transformation of production lines with traditional processes into automated lines, with less manual work, more versatility and speed. However, it is not only the production line transformation that fits here, but also all the change in behavior and mindset of a company that wants to continue growing, innovating and finding the balance between profit, worker well-being and sustainability.

An automation project is something totally innovative and unique to each customer, so it is necessary to follow a series of steps for the execution of a good Industry 4.0 project. The project should take into account the needs and objectives of the company, its current processes and, most importantly, its employees. Finally, it should be seen as the beginning of Digital Transformation in the business, which brings many possibilities for growth and innovation within the companies in which it is applied.

In 20 years, the transformation of the factories will be complete, but there are already factories adapting to the new world and we at Venturus are partners in this journey. With over 25 years in the market, we work with Industry 4.0 for factories of many segments always following customer specifications and international automation standards.

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