Enabling Automation Podcast: Episode Two

We’re excited to bring you our first-ever podcast series, Enabling Automation. This monthly podcast series will bring together industry leaders from across ATS Automation to discuss the latest industry trends, new innovations and more!

In the second episode, host Simon Drexler is joined by special guest Ian Menzies to Debunk Automation Myths.

Automation myths we will be debunking:

  • Factory jobs are being replaced by automation
  • It is too expensive to implement
  • Automation is not scalable
  • Only large organizations can automate

Host: Simon Drexler, ATS Automation (ATS Products Group)

Simon has been in the automation industry for approximately 15 years in a variety of roles, ranging from application engineering to business leadership, as well as serving several different industries and phases of the automation lifecycle.

Guest: Ian Menzies, ATS Automation (Industrial Automation)

Ian Menzies is the Engineering Director within our Industrial Automation group at ATS. He has been working in the automation industry for  15 years, in a  variety of roles starting in systems engineering and project management. He now leads all engineering groups within Industrial Automation.

——Full Transcript of Enabling Automation: Episode 2——

SD: Welcome to the monthly installment of Enabling Automation, where we bring industry experts from across the ATS group of companies to talk about pertinent topics in the world of industrial automation.

SD: I’ll be your host; my name is Simon Drexler. I’ve been in the automation industry for about 15 years in a variety of progressive roles, and I’m currently the General Manager of the Automation Products Group inside of ATS Automation.

SD: We’re very fortunate to be talking about a very relevant topic. There are a number of myths that exist in the manufacturing world around industrial automation and how we progress and implement technology into our manufacturing processes.

SD: And so, we’re going to talk about debunking some of those automation myths with a phenomenal expert. His name’s Ian Menzies and I’ll pass the mic over to him for a quick introduction.

IM: All right. Thanks, Simon.

IM: My name is Ian Menzies. I’m the Engineering Director within our Industrial Automation group at ATS. I’ve been around about the same amount of time as Simon for 15 years now, and again, similar variety of roles starting in systems engineering and project management. Now leading all our engineering groups within Industrial Automation. Thanks for having me.

SD: And you’re also a key driver of some innovation and innovative approaches to some of the industrial automation there as well, right?

IM: Yeah. I mean, when you’ve been here this long, it’s safe to say you get to see a little bit of everything and get your finger in the mix, so that’s good.

SD: I think that’s why I’m really excited to have this conversation with you today, Ian. You know, similar background. We’ve been in the industry for about the same amount of time, so similar views, but you’ve been responsible and involved in some of the high-end automation that’s been built over the last few years. And I think that’s a great perspective to bring to our listeners around what myths do still exist around automation and how to implement it into their businesses.

IM: I’m happy to be here. It’s going to be good.

SD: So, as I mentioned, there are a number of myths kicking around. There’s still a lot of companies that are new to the journey of how to automate processes. They’re new to the journey of how to utilize robotics to give themselves some more productivity, which is probably more important today than it has been, at least in the early parts of our career. So why don’t we just start hitting some of the myths head on? I hear all the time, from the time that I started in the automation world is automation is just going to take my job, going to replace factory jobs. What would you say, true or false to that myth?

IM: I’m going to say false, to be honest. And I’ve seen it, I’ve had the uncomfortables, I’ve had some experiences of walking into factories and looking at processes and talking to people who were looking to essentially automate their jobs in a way. But the reality of the situation is much bigger than that. And I think what we do and the industry and the workforce shortages that we have today, automation becomes critical for keeping the business in North America. So, it’s not about really taking away jobs. It’s about staying competitive in the market, is the way I see it. We have things that people don’t want to do anymore, we’re not able to find the right people to do, so we can automate those things. By creating automation, we actually create better jobs for people. We create this high-tech industry, and we build upon that skill set. And we’re not trying to compete in this low-tech industry, which is historically challenging for us to compete in. And that’s where there was a lot of offshoring over the years.

IM: The opposite is happening now is on shoring. Automation now is the driver for more jobs in North America from the way I look at it, because we have lots of customers out there who are coming to us because they want to onshore their work. They want to bring back jobs to North America or to wherever they are. They need automation to be able to do that, to be competitive. And so along with that comes all the skilled trades who install, design, build the equipment, support it, the programmers who develop it and turn it into a living, breathing machine and then there’s a whole group of people that maintain it for its lifetime. So, I can see the perspective. But I think in the grander picture, it creates jobs in the long run. That’s my view on it anyways.

SD: I really like that you framed it like it’s sort of bigger than that. There’s a grander picture at stake because in my view and in my experience, you’re talking to people about applying technology to manufacturing. And there’s always a risk of what comes next. And oftentimes people don’t see or don’t have a viewpoint to what comes next. And that causes that sort of defensive “You are going to take my job” rather than “I’m going to be able to create more value if I don’t have to do this and the robot does this or the automation does that”.

SD: I think one of the things when we’re talking about this myth and if I’m listening to this podcast, I might be looking for some advice as a manufacturing engineer or as an operations manager who is looking to implement technology or implement automation into my operation. And knowing that’s a myth that exists and knowing that might be the response from some of my workforce. What would you recommend? How would you approach that as an expert and as somebody who’s been in the industry for a while?

IM: I mean, I’ve seen it done in a variety of ways, to be honest. But I think starting in a small, I’d say scalable manner is good, right? When you can come in and build it up, if you have an operation, for example, and you look to turn it over all at once, there’s a whole bunch of technical and operational challenges with that type of approach. But if you do it all at once, even just with the people factor, I think you’re going to see a lot of issues with change management. You’re going to have that perception, right? But if you start to do it over time in small bits and pieces, I think people will start to see the reality come true, where it’s not about replacing people’s jobs, it’s about creating new types of jobs and opportunities. And I think you can build upon that a little bit more slowly. That would be my recommendation, I guess as far as an approach, and I can appreciate there can be hesitation there.

SD: It can be challenging. I’ve actually been fortunate, I’ve worked for a number of innovative companies and you go in and you implement technology and like one approach is always to say, historically as people we’ve always done this. And the easiest one to look at is computers. And I even remember when I was much younger, computers were coming into the workforce and it was, oh, my God, accountants aren’t going have anything to do anymore. The computer is going to do the accounting. But that’s never been the case. Accounting has become more value add. There’s been a lot more analysis that happens to the numbers and become more of a driver to the business. It’s just changed the work. It hasn’t replaced the work. It’s changed the work.


IM: Agreed. And that kind of goes on to say it’s unlocking the potential of people to do things where we really add value, just putting the screw in the hole is not really a value-add thing. People are far more capable than that. Adding two numbers together is not really that critical. It’s the assessment, the analysis of the data. When you get into automation, it doesn’t just run itself blindly. You start to be able to have people who instead of just putting two pieces together, are looking at the way the machine runs and they’re driving optimization, improvement, product optimization. And now you’ve taken all that time and investment in people that are now able to make everything better. So we all move ahead faster.

SD: Last question on this myth before we move on to the next one. Have you seen a change in the last couple of years in the marketplace? You had mentioned right from the very beginning, we’re seeing a change in the industry where reshoring has become a primary driver of automation. Have you seen a change in the perception on replacing factory jobs or is that something that’s still quite relevant today?

IM: I mean, with that mindset, it’s not as much about replacing factory jobs as much as creating opportunities. You see here, brownfield factories that were shut down, being lit back up, you see new factories being built where the work would have previously been done elsewhere in the world. And we’re creating new opportunities for using automation, bringing in high tech people, bringing in the youth of today who are going through for robotics and automation programs. So, there’s a lot of that. And we have some key technology drivers in the world today that are kind of bringing that about. There’s definitely some big changes going on there.

SD: I really like what you said there about lighting back up brownfield factories. You know, I think as suppliers of technology, as people who are involved in the manufacturing industry and a primary driver of the ability to reshore operations back to our local markets, I’m not sure that there’s something that’s more rewarding than seeing that factory light back up. And we are seeing a lot of that these days.

IM: Well, now that you say that I was actually visiting some customer sites down in Michigan last week. And I’ve been there a number of times over the years. And I can say the number of older factories that are getting renovated, rebuilt, new factories being built in place of old ones, you can really see the face of the Detroit area changing right now. There’s a lot going on there. And you look back ten years ago and it was a bit of a different story. And you look at what’s happening. It is that higher tech industry that’s coming back and bringing in the boom in the area. It is pretty exciting when you think about it.

SD: I think there’s probably no better way to debunk that myth that automation isn’t replacing factory jobs, it’s driving higher value jobs. It’s driving jobs where there currently are not. And what a great example the Detroit area is right now.

SD: Well, something else that we hear very often as people involved in the industrial automation world is it’s too expensive for me to implement.

IM: There is definitely an investment up front, and you have to be serious about it. I don’t want to understate that. It’s a trivial undertaking. But I’ve done lots of these over the years. A part of one of my roles here in the past, I used to be involved in some of our pre-automation consulting business, and we do a lot of return on investment analysis. And you’d be surprised how much things cost you over time when you look at the cost of people, the cost of defects associated with, what inevitably happens with people, right? We’re prone to error over time, especially when we’re doing things that don’t typically engage us or stimulate us. That’s when people tend to make mistakes. So when you start to add up all of those other sort of costs of the way you currently do business, and then you look at the potential savings that you can get when you go to automation, it may not be apparent right away, but when you do that, you’ll actually see that the ROI is there. And then today I think that whole scenario is really magnified by the current job markets. I mean, across North America the unemployment rates are at all-time lows. Looking for skilled workforces is challenging. People are moving from one company to the next for small amounts of money in different or small differences in pay, just even to shore up the shortage in the workforce. Automation really starts to add it’s value because with the growth in the market, I’m going to pick on the EV industry as an example right now because it’s fairly relevant to us. We couldn’t get there with people. There’s just not enough people in the industry or in the job markets right now to be able to hire, bring on and keep up with the pace of growth that we’re seeing in that industry. So automation is really fundamental to success to that foundational change to our infrastructure within the automotive sector. Automation is really enabling it and without that we wouldn’t be able to do it.

SD: I think that’s a great approach to, that too expensive to implement as well. You know, again, fortunate to have lots of conversations at trade shows or industry roundtables and I’ve heard somebody say that automation used to be a nice to have, but now it’s needed for survival. And I think you touched on the reason why, you know, the labor market has changed significantly. Types of jobs, availability of people, capacities and capabilities that are required for products that are getting more complicated and more accurate and more complex. It’s not so much that the approach of a decade ago where maybe automation was nice to have and there were alternates, it’s not so much the case anymore in a variety of applications. It really is needed to drive the industry or the business forward. Like the EV example you just gave.

IM: Yeah, and you look at other reasons out there. If you think about, everybody loves their Amazon, right? If you think about Amazon, I wouldn’t get my Prime next day shipping if it wasn’t for the automation that they have in their warehouses. The customers want it. People drive the demand for things. They want it now. That’s where to really satisfy the people who are paying for things, automation is the answer. If you didn’t do that, if you think about the cost to the lost opportunity cost, so to speak, if you didn’t do it, where would Amazon be today as an example.

SD:  And I think as suppliers of automation, we’ve been so preconditioned, it has to have an ROI, it has to have an ROI, and in some of the other episodes of the podcast, we’ve talked about how to drive that ROI, specific pieces and steps to put that together. But I think when we’re talking about the myth that automation is too expensive, I think where that myth comes from is we’re not looking at the total cost of what not having automation gives and whether that’s opportunity cost, whether that’s challenge with people, whether that’s quality. Is that a fair view?

IM: I think so. And I think that those other factors which are obviously not as direct to put a number on is where it can fall down. If you don’t really extrapolate and think about what that is like, opportunity cost is key. How do you really put a number on that? If you don’t, then you’re really not doing a fair assessment.

SD: It’s great, it’s related, but not the same. Something else I think you probably hear very frequently as well is that automation isn’t scalable. What would you say to somebody who phrased that to you?

IM: I think there’s two ways that I can take that, I suppose. But, I’d say fundamentally, I think in some regards, if you really want to scale, you need the automation to do it. And the example I used before within the EV industry is that that segment there. And I think the numbers here, I could be wrong, but my understanding, my recollection is there’s about 40% growth in the EV market year over year. And the amount of automation or production volume that needs to support that growth. Right now, there’s actually not really enough automation capacity out there to accommodate what’s eventually going to be needed. So you think about that. Even with automation, we might not be able to keep up with that level of growth. Well, how do we think we’re going to do that without automation, with just people producing these things when we also know that the job market is hot and there’s not the available workers out there when you’re really looking to scale your business I mean, automation is important to do it. But I don’t want to understate the fact that you do need to understand where you’re going when you’re scaling. There are challenges. Scalability and flexibility are two different things going forward with an automation solution without I’d say a somewhat stable platform or product can be challenging. It’s not impossible, but you have to be smart about how you do it. And there are right times to implement automation and then there’s times where it’s better to maybe take some other approaches, even lean automation versus full. And that really depends on where you are in your scaling journey and the level of product maturity, I would say that you have.

SD: I like the two paths that you took around that myth because you’re right, it isn’t. If the myth is that it isn’t scalable, there’s two perceptions or two ways you can internalize the word scalable. The first is can I kind of copy and paste it to do more? And I think as people in the industry, we know with absolute certainty. Yes. You know, multiple factories, multiple approaches around the world where you can take a lean cell and you can copy it or you can start to pull automation and technology together as your volumes indicate. And kind of the primary driver of automation is usually volume and production volume.

IM: Yeah. I mean, we’ve gotten really good at being able to even within simple cell scale, scale our approach. So that way within a simple, simple machine, we can start it off at one cell along the line. And we reserve space for growth in the future because we know that customer wants to say start with 2000, you know, parts per hour, but they want to be able to scale to 10,000 parts per hour in the future. Right? We can design that in and build that flexibility in early on and then it becomes a really easy scaling journey. And then you can take that whole thing and then, like you said, multiply it across different factories, different sites and that’s, yeah, that’s proven.

SD: I think both approaches, because the second approach is that flexibility and adaptability, it is part of the design specification from the beginning. If you’re clever about how you approach it, if you take the foundational technologies that now are fairly broadly available in the market, that offer that adaptability and offer that flexibility as products change or as we add automation to drive more scale, you really can achieve both paths of that scalability answer.

IM: Yeah. I think so. Whenever you get into that the product flexibility, that’s always something you just have to be mindful of once you start scaling and you have an immature product, the cost of change becomes greater, right? So that’s where through that equation, generally people will help and work with our customers and figure out what is the right solution for where they are and where they are on their journey to scaling.

SD: So, as a listener to the podcast, I think that’s a great thing. You know, there’s this math, automation is it scalable? You know, once I’ve automated it, my flexibility goes away or it’s not that easy to copy and paste. I think we both know the copy and paste part is easy. Where would you tell them to start if they know that their product is changing?

IM: The key there is looking at modularity, is trying to figure out how to design your automation process and also your product to allow for a modular design process. So that way, if you have one part of the product that needs to change in their automation to potentially change as a result, it doesn’t impact everything else in the line. And it starts with the product design. The more you can think for design, for assembly to help you with that is important. We try to get involved with our customers as early as we can in the process where there’s still opportunity to implement changes in design for assembly, which kind of does two things. One, that makes the automation simpler in the first place. But it also allows us to kind of keep those sort of modular elements of the way the product design works related to how it’s going to be automated. So that way, again, down the road, we don’t have to have this. I’m going to use the example, one big monstrous machine, which is kind of like the everything under the sun utility knife where we can break it out into these separate systems that are much more easy to maintain, update and keep relevant to your product design.

SD: And this touches on a real passion area for me. I think one of the things that I’m most excited about, about both the current state of the automation world and I think the next decade is the development of platforms that enable modularity, modularization or a modular approach because of that challenge that the marketplace sees. We’ll just keep coming back to the EV example since it’s top of mind. 40% growth. 40% growth drives a lot of change. You need a lot of flexibility. And I think the technology providers have heard that problem and really started to approach it in an approachable way or an accessible way for the manufacturers so that they can drive that flexibility and I think we’re going to see more change in that area as providers moving forward.

IM: I mean, if you look historically, kind of at a more mature industry, like very mature industries in the automation sector, you can see that it really goes towards that over time. I think an example of the semiconductor industry is a pretty good example of that where, now those elements are all very modularized, which are going to a semiconductor fab and it’s last boutique automation where it once was.

SD: Yeah, that’s another really good example. This is also a really good segue, I think, into the next myth that it’s not quite the same as the others, but you hear oftentimes, we’re too small to automate. Automation is meant for large organizations. Do you think that’s still true today?

IM: I’m going to say no. I think that you have to have capability to run automation. So, again, that’s not necessarily about scale, but maybe capability. If you are a five person organization, you could have automation there, but you have to have the right type of people. You could conversely be a behemoth organization and not have the right type of people there. So to put in automation, I think it’s more about the type of people and the organization that you have behind the amount of automation you have. It sounds maybe simplified, but you can’t have a bunch of people who have never seen automation before expected to design or specify, implement, maintain automation indefinitely, right? But if you bring in, for a small company for example, one person who’s got background in robotics and automation after a line gets set up and tuned and installed, absolutely that’s sustainable. That’s doable. We’ve seen it all the time.


SD:  And it’s interesting that you’ve seen it. And I would say my perspective on that, again, background in more innovative technologies coming to market, big change over the last I would say decade on the approachability of technology and I think the understanding of what automation means. I would say early in, at least in my career, automation often meant we want to go lights out, you’d have a costumer or you’d have a partner come in and say, we want to automate everything. And while that’s a great goal and there are lots of companies in the world that do that, it’s probably more the exception than the rule. And now we’re seeing a lot more technologies that work hand in hand with people. The definition of automation has absolutely changed.


IM: It’s so much more accessible now, right? Like you look at the scale where you are, where you’re interested, right? It can be something as simple as one robot on a conveyor line doing something that a person was doing that was a repetitive strain injury type of a job. And that doesn’t require a lot of scale or complexity, but it’s easily implemented and maintained at that level. And it’s not this sort of far out there, high technology. I mean, it is high technology, but it’s not it’s doable by most organizations now, right. It’s taught like you go to schools, you go to any college, robotics and automation is a very common program. There’s a lot of people out there who know this kind of stuff.

SD: And I know we’re biased, but I would say they learn that for good reason.

IM: That’s right. Yes, right.

SD: And I think it kind of circles back to one of the things that we were talking about earlier in our chat today. And it’s that people, companies, operators, they’re looking for ways to drive incremental value in their workforce whereas ten years ago, automation meant almost hands off. Nobody touches the automation cell but we need to know how to fix it, have it breaks. Now, we work hand in hand with the technology and it might be 10% faster or 20% faster, 50% faster, but it’s become more of a joint tool and an integrated part of the process then I think historically it has been.

IM: I know what you mean and this circles back a little bit to the replacement of factory jobs topic. But no, I think you’re right. There’s a lot more opportunity to go on a continuous improvement journey from where you are with a manual station,  manual process today and move into automation. Whereas before, I think it was a bigger leap to move into automation and that’s where maybe the perception was much more there about losing jobs. But now, like you say, you can take small, small leaps into it. There’s, all kinds of kits. I mean, heck, my kid has robotic kits and they’re doing programing now, so it’s just that much more available. And when I look, I think about this all the time, most people, I wouldn’t say most people in general but most people I know, you know, if we’re doing something, we often look for an easier way to do our job. Right? That sort of I think there’s something human about that. Right? No one likes doing something the hard way as we’re looking for things, we inherently are trying to find an easier way. And we know that’s how lean is very successful.  What if I bring my parts over here? This way so that it presents the parts to me and I don’t have to go walking around for them. That’s people looking for easier ways to do it. And now with this, all people are going to the point. Well, you know, maybe if I have a robot that does this little step right and they can take that sort of micro leap into automation, versus saying, I’m going to turn my factory into lights out. That’s kind of cool. How it’s much more accessible today.

SD: Yeah, I agree. And like I said, it’s sort of one of the things that excites me the most about not only the next ten years, but even today, where the accessibility has really changed in the last few years. And I think it’s only going to get better. And again, kind of related but not the same to the next myth that we hear a lot and this is probably the last one we’ll talk about today, but it’s that automation won’t work with a legacy factory or in my current process.

IM: There’s definitely  always challenges. And it’s change management, to be honest. You have to be able to look at what the opportunity is. I mean, I say you absolutely can. We’ve proven it. We do it all the time where we’ve gone in and we’ve updated processes with automation, but it’s not without its challenges. So you have to be cognizant of what the product design is. If something is done without automation, oftentimes it’s designed in such a way that it’s meant for manual assembly or processing. And sometimes those things are hard or challenging to automate. And maybe you shouldn’t be. So you have to be willing to entertain design changes for one, depending on  what you’re looking at and you have to be willing to invest in some of the research areas on how you can replicate your manual processes. One thing we often get into is doing small proofs of principle with some of these types of clients who are looking to change out something that they currently do, and this gives us a pretty good way where we can go study what they’re doing. We’ll come up with concepts and proposal. We can do small scale studies and demonstrations of here’s how it might work. And again, from a cost perspective, you’re not all in and your operations are still ongoing and then you can really understand what the benefit is and the ROI, and then you can choose to make that investment once you know. I mean, I think the answer is you absolutely can, but like anything else, you really have to look at and it goes back to the conversation we had earlier, but it’s the too expensive to implement. You know, what’s the opportunity cost of not doing it to a degree. You have to think about those things. So, I mean, anything’s possible. We put people on the moon.

SD: And what a great way. So I was just about to say the same thing is, you know, we’re  talking through the myths and a lot of them are inter-related for sure. But I think it’s the idea that anything can be done if there is a desire to do that. And the technology advancements over the last few years are really enabling manufacturers, enabling providers in ways that historically we couldn’t. And so like as much as we could put a man on the moon, the moon is becoming more accessible to, the operator of today. And I really, truly believe that. So these myths are really as much as they’re related, the solution to all of them is related as well.

IM: I mean, you know, to your point about like the technology, with the robots and collaborative technologies that are coming about today, it really even closes that gap further. Those are things where when we talk about trying to replicate manual processes, it really is that sort of small scale step where you don’t necessarily have to change everything to go from where you are today to some level of automation.

SD: And I think that’s such a great way to approach that. It can’t work with my process, it’s so old or that it’s not the same as it would have been ten years ago. Collaborative robotics. Major advancements in inspection, equipment and vision allow for, I would say, the augmentation of manual processes to make them significantly more efficient with a relatively low level of automation.

IM: Absolutely. Some of the technology out there today, it’s just it’s super cool.

SD:  And I think you gave our listeners such a great way to get started, too. When it comes to any of these myths that we’re largely debunking today, try it, you know, do proof of principle. There’s not a lot of expense behind trying a key part of your process or a key part of the assembly of something. When you’re working with the right partner, when you find a piece of foundational technology that you want to try, there’s great partners out in the world, find them, try it, learn and then move forward from there. Because I think you’ll find that you can debunk almost any myth that exists in automation today.

IM: Yeah, no I agree.

SD: Ian, I think what a great way to finish our chat today and hopefully our listeners appreciated your input on the topic of debunking automation myths and I appreciate everybody joining us for our monthly installment of Enabling Automation.