Enabling Automation Podcast: Episode One 

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 introductory episode, host Simon Drexler is joined by special guest Frank Schmidt to discuss Why now is the time to automate.

What we discuss:

  • How disruptions are forcing businesses to re-evaluate their global footprint
  • Why an aging workforce and lack of new talent is changing processes
  • What new technologies and tools have been introduced to improve automation

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: Frank Schmidt, ATS Automation (PA Solutions)

Frank Schmidt is responsible for the Process Optimization Business Unit within PA Solutions, where we help our customers improve their processes. Frank has been with PA for two years and has more than 20 years of experience related to manufacturing, including industrial engineering, production management, side management and has had the chance to build up several plants.

——Full Transcript of Enabling Automation: Episode 1——

SD: Welcome everyone to Episode One of our Enabling Automation Podcast series. We’re very excited to bring a series of topics to our listeners to empower them in the implementation and support of automation projects within their organization. Our first topic is “Why is now the time to automate?”

SD: I’ll be your host of the podcast. My name is Simon Drexler. I’ve 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.

SD: My guest today is Frank Schmidt from PA Solutions. And Frank, would you take a moment to introduce yourself to our listeners?

FS: Thank you, Simon. Frank Schmidt, as you said, responsible for the Process Optimization Business Unit within PA Solutions, where we try to help our customers improve their processes, usually to an efficiency OEE and all around that KPIs. I’ve been with PA for two years of having a background in discrete industry and have more than 20 years experience related to manufacturing, including industrial engineering, production management, side management and I have had the chance to build up several plants myself before PA Solutions. And now I’m doing consulting work now as I said, helping customers to improve their processes.

SD: That’s fantastic, Frank, and we’re just so fortunate to have someone like you on the initial episode of our podcast to talk about how to enable and how to get started on the automation journey. It can be daunting for some and the experience that you have both in your professional career as well as being a business leader inside of PA Solutions, which is responsible for enabling it and coaching people and teams through maximizing their investment in automation is just such a perfect fit for this topic. And so why don’t we dive right in?

SD: You know, you’ve got a lot of background. You’re dealing with a number of different customers worldwide. Why is now the time to automate?

FS: We currently live in a world of disruptions, so I see many supply chains disruptions, which is bringing companies back to where they originally started. They need to set up a different footprint, maybe in some cases they need to bring formerly relocated production footprint back to where they originally started to be able to have material available. And we see that those customers, they are kind of desperately looking to improve their cost position overall. Most are looking to understand A) could we somehow automate and B) if yes, where would it make sense to start from?

SD: And you mentioned an interesting word in disruption. And certainly, over the last couple of years there has been a disruption and a major change with a global pandemic, which has, I believe, forced a number of people to reevaluate their global footprint and how their products come together and come to market. I know that is the primary one, but are you seeing sort of secondary drivers and secondary reasons for that disruption where we’ve got more people looking for automation than ever before?

FS: And I think that the secondary triggers and maybe also some primary ones, it’s gaining efficiency. And I think that maybe the pandemic is kind of the trigger for “we need to have a look at our processes” that we maybe did not have for the last several years and we need to start to do that. And maybe this is number one and what we also see is that the population in some companies is aging a lot. And we also get requests from customers who say “yes, we have some trouble with finding people, finding new talent”. And we would like to get independent from this one and to set up an automated process to be more flexible and robust in the end, in the process.

SD:  And in my role, I hear that a lot as well. It’s the accessibility of talent. And you touched on a couple of different reasons, you know, changing in population dynamics as well as potentially an aging workforce in different areas around the world. So certainly, a primary driver is the need to find a different way. Inside of that you know, there’s a number of companies and approaches to try to make technology more accessible to these applications. Is that something that that you’ve seen in your experience dealing with customers as well, where it’s getting more straightforward to apply technology to these gaps in our processes?

FS: I think that technologies have improved a lot. So, number one of course is the digital sanctions that the data availability, as you would say, has much improved during the last few years to make data available almost everywhere at any time. I think this is number one. And if you would like to improve and maybe to start automation, you need to have the data to understand what is going to happen, what is happening in your process. So, I think this is a trademark. And then also with that, let’s say, for example, in robotics, we see many topics where also in the next level, maybe in the technology that is available somehow and that makes it easier to substitute human beings in the end and to do that and implement the technology.

SD: You touched on another thing that I’m quite passionate about, which is, you know, that fundamental and underlying data in the process and I completely agree with you that one of the things that has become more accessible in the implementation of technology is the amount of information that we are able to pull from our processes and what I’ve seen as a major trend is being able to utilize that data to justify the return on investment. So not only is it a continuity implementation of technology where, you know, maybe accessibility of talent or wanting to improve the efficiency of supply chain, as you’ve already mentioned, but also that we’re getting much better at justifying the investment in technology because we better understand our processes. Is that something that you’ve seen as well?

FS: Mm hmm. I think in the end, there are still a few triggers to do technology, automation or not. And one of the most important ones is, is there a business case in the end? And let’s end with number one, having more data available. You can calculate maybe better than in the past what the outcome of the business case will be. And number two, all the simulation tools that are around can also help to justify if automation in the end is going to work how you would like to see it, right?

SD: Absolutely. And PA Solutions does provide that coaching and consulting of both lean process evaluation and application of automation technology on top of those assessments. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about a common outcome of those types of assessments and the data that you provide?

FS: Maybe, yes, of course. And maybe I start a little earlier in the process. So usually, I find often customers come and say, hey, we have a feeling that we could do something, but we do not know exactly where and how to start. And then if in the end this would be off. And then we can go in with, as you said, the kind of assessment where we start to display a process in a registry mapping. And because with this use the process is clear, everybody can talk to it, everybody can understand it, and everybody usually has remarks where the weak points are. And then we can bring in lean experts, we can bring in digitalization experts, and we can bring in the automation experts. And this is, in the end, very good and very important, because if there are some gaps in efficiency detected or shown, then we can quite easily develop ideas and solutions with our experts that fit to close the gap or to improve the situation. And so that I can say the triangle of the offering of PA is really addressing the need. So, to find the gap, to understand the process, the digitalization, to get the data and then the automation positively, to improve the situation. And then in between, of course, we do a business case. I’m starting to calculate if the investment is worth doing it and the result we receive is like expected in the end.

SD: You touched on another topic in that response that I think nicely ties together a few things that we’ve mentioned already. You know, there’s disruption in the way that business has been done, at least in the recent history, that has companies seeking more effective ways to drive efficiency in their processes. You and I mentioned data. I know we’re both passionate about it and the accessibility of data, but we didn’t talk about simulation, and you just mentioned it there. And with the advances in computer software, ease of implementation, one of the trends that I’ve seen is that simulation is becoming more accessible, which allows that visualization and better understanding of data, better understanding of processes. Are you seeing that as a major catalyst for the investigation of technology and the implementation of automation?

FS: To be honest, yes and no. Number one, yes, because usually with simulation, depending on how it’s done, you can visualize a future state of a process. This usually helps to get and to give decision makers an idea of how the process could or would look like or if they make a change. So for me, this is a wonderful tool to support the transmission of the message on our future state of what it looks like. So this is number one where I believe the simulation is really helpful. And then sometimes it’s used, unfortunately, maybe as a kind of a selling point still a little bit.

FS: On the other hand, I see more and more companies that really would like to understand if in the end, in the process, how it’s designed and set up, if there are still bottlenecks, some possible problems. So really making a technical justification if this is going to work in the end. I still see it could be improved and the number of companies using that and what we currently see and also having one or the other nice project is doing really digital trends. So, this is an interesting topic where companies would like to understand it in a virtual room, how a process behaves, and where we can do some, I don’t know, influences and simulation. And where would work on the process somehow and see how it would behave and what the outcome would be.

SD: Interesting and in the scope of today’s discussion around you know why now is the time to automate. Digital Twin is an interesting topic as well to me because it’s being utilized as a means to either reduce the risk or reduce the implementation time of technology into the process. Are you seeing that improve throughout the analyses that you’re doing and the customers that you’re working with in the use of Digital Twin.

FS: So right now we have only a few customers using the Digital Twin and I would say most the important factor is really reducing risk. In one case a customer is rebuilding an old system to training on it and then to really get a smooth start up again. And in a in another case, we are talking about a British water system where the customer would like to understand and simulate if a quantity of the pipe would be blocked or if one of the other pipes running, what possible deviations would look like or how record would instruct operators on what to do next. So, this is more topics that we see in the context of time to market for example or time to set up a system.

SD: Understood. So continuing on that path, you know there are new technologies coming available. There are things and tools that make the accessibility of technology more straightforward. Are you seeing automation technology applied to applications or projects where historically that hasn’t been the case because of the disruption we started with?

FS: Yes, we are seeing more and more customers that are asking for our operations assessment tool to gain efficiency who are asking us to look for potential automation pieces where we could implement this. And so I see that not only in industries but also customers who are used to or who are not used to automation. They start thinking about it and maybe explicitly that it should be on the table and on the screen to understand if they could gain efficiency from this one.

SD: I really like the fact that you keep coming back to efficiency and utilizing technology to drive efficiency. And one of the things inside of the business that I that I’m a part of, we talk about frequently, is that technology is now being applied not to be the perfect solution, but one that will drive some level of efficiency for the manual workforce. Because if we are able to take even 10% of what has been historically manual and allow technology to drive that, then we can take 10% of our very valuable labor force and apply them to another part of the business. Is that something that you’re seeing? And in the assessments that PA Solutions complete?

FS: Yeah. Yeah. And yet maybe coming back a little bit on this efficiency topic, my deep understanding about it is that if you start to talk about automation, you need to find the pain point that the customer is having. And if you talk to internal operations about what is it about in the end? It’s usually about quality. It’s about, let’s say, delivery, so output or delivery time or it’s really about the cost in the end efficiency. And so usually one of those pain points is triggering companies to ask for help. And of course, in the end, we’ve also had scenarios where a customer came and said, well, we are on a growth path. We have an experienced workforce right now. We see that customer demand is really, really increasing. And yeah, we could either hire manpower over manpower or we can use the experienced manpower that we have and try to go to the next step with automation and keep the manpower on board and extend our capabilities for delivery. So this is something that we see also with our customers.

SD: I’m happy that you’re seeing that trend as well. And to phrase that or frame that a little bit differently, you know, what we’re seeing is trying to apply our manual workforce to the highest value applications possible and utilize technology, again, even if it’s not the perfect solution, but utilize that to do the low value tasks. And it sounds like you’re seeing that as well.

FS: Yes. And then let’s say if you have customers who are into that, do you have any examples or experience in mind of how they are doing this? Because for me if you start optimizing something that is maybe done manually before, the are a lot of potential hiccups and you can run in. So, a grip of the robot is something different than the hand of a human operator, right? And you can maybe react to a smaller reaction with a human being that is maybe not so obvious in the beginning with an automated system or a robot. Or do you see stories like this and how do you cope with that?

SD: And that’s a great example. And I often use collaborative robots as the primary example of where you might not be applying the ideal solution, but you are applying something that is easily accessible, reasonably straightforward to apply an ROI to, and you start to break out your process into what the collaborative robot is able to do. And even if that’s 10, 20, 30% of the process, even if they’re slightly less efficient than the manual operator in the opportunity benefit, I would say it’s almost the opposite of opportunity cost, the opportunity benefit of being able to take that operator’s time and apply it to some other part of the business to support the growing demand and/or the growing complexity of the product or the implementation of some new process or new part of the organization is what generally justifies the implementation of that piece of technology. And so we work with our customers in a similar way to you to analyze the process, understand where the major phases are, understand where the major validation points are to be able to really hone in on where can we get started. How do we get moving with automation or technology.

FS: I have another question for you in this context.

SD: Absolutely.

FS: So if you work with customers, do you have cases where they ask you to improve an existing system and do you then do you sometimes find out that the availability of the system is good, but the logistics, for example, around this is the issue. Do you also have some section kind of topics?

SD: We actually see that quite frequently. And I think it’s some of those major trends that you spoke of right at the beginning of the call. The disruption of supply chain, the disruption of the availability of workforce has companies seeking new ways. And we all have limited footprint, especially inside of facilities so we have a lot of customers, partners that come to us and say, how do we get more parts that have less space, essentially? And that has us really diving into the processes that exist.  Are there ways to more effectively move parts around? Are there ways to improve or optimize the availability of individual process stations or individual steps along the journey in order to start to drive more efficiency with the ultimate goal of more parts out of less space.

FS: That sounds interesting because what we always tell customers is if you have a manually done process which is bad and you just optimize this, you will have an automized process which is still bad, right? So you should have a look inside before you just add a robot to see if you can get the problems out before getting it to the next technology level.

SD: I’m fortunate to sit on a number of different boards and do a fair bit of speaking, and it comes up very often. You know what happens when you apply technology to a bad process? You basically just get a faster, more efficient, bad process. And so that is definitely something that we would encourage our listeners to avoid. And we will have a podcast actually dedicated to that topic of how to get started in the automation journey.

SD: So Frank, to wrap up our topic for today and coming back to why is now the time to automate, what would be the one side or the closing thought that you would leave our listeners with?

FS: So why is now the time to automate? I believe circumstances are triggering us to think about the processes, how we did it in the past. So starting with the pandemic, with the disruptions in the supply chains and everything, this is only number one. And number two is that, for example, for talents, the aging of the population, not finding the right people, this is also a trigger. I think it’s a good time to start now because the availability of technology is, know-how wise really good and has improved over the last few years. And to bring it into context with the processes you are having, the digitalization is also scaling up and supporting the idea of bringing in more technology and automation into processes. So, all together, from my point of view it is really a good time actually. It is a good time to start now and to think about it now and to get into it.

SD: What a fantastic way to summarize our topic in our talk today, Frank. Thank you so much for both your time and lending your expertise and thoughts to our listeners. Really appreciate you joining us today in our podcast for Enabling Automation. And to those listening, the next topic that we’re going to talk about in our podcast is starting to debunk some of the myths that are associated with the implementation of technology and some of the things that Frank just summarized is things are changing, technology is rapidly innovating, and that’s changing the way that we implement technology in the world. So we’ll debunk some of the myths that still existed in the world today as we continue on our journey of enabling our listeners to implement technology and automation in their processes.