Small-scale production has its advantages, allowing for agile and flexible production and facilitating product customisation. However, once products are perfected and processes optimised, manufacturers might wish to scale up and reach a truly global customer base. Here Neil Ballinger, Head of EMEA at EU Automation, shares three tips for manufacturers who want to expand their operations.
According to recent data by the International Council for Small Business (ICSB), micro, small and medium-sized enterprises constitute more than 90% of all firms, account for 70% of total employment and 50% of the global GDP. Small businesses also contribute to the development of technologies - while they might not have the R&D budget of global corporations, the scale of their operations and the relatively small among of red tape often allows for the faster implementation of new and innovative processes.
However, scaling up a small manufacturing business is notoriously difficult. The traditional challenges of growing a business, such as equipment purchase, floor space, and talent recruitment, are coupled with the necessity to maintain the original quality and consistency in large-batch production.
EU Automation started as a small business about ten years ago, and over the course of the years has built a strong reputation in the industrial automation space, as well as a truly global presence. Here are three tips for entrepreneurs in the manufacturing and automation landscape who wish to do the same.
To scale up, your product needs to be top-notch. However, because of the many variables to consider, it is often hard to maintain the original product quality in larger batches. For example, in additive manufacturing processes, maintaining consistency in large-scale production is notoriously difficult. The amount of manual post-processing involved can also be a problem when scaling up production.
Nevertheless, defective products can quickly destroy a company’s reputation, especially in a phase of rapid expansion. Poor quality also leads to rework costs, excess inventory, fines, late delivery and lost sale opportunities.
Investing in automated quality assurance solutions can be the key to minimise these costs and build a reputation of quality and trustworthiness. Flexible and cost-effective solutions, such as off-the-shelf Autonomous Machine Vision systems, can be ideal for manufacturers who need to often reconfigure their production lines and who don’t have the technical and financial resources to commission a machine vision solution built from scratch.
Scaling up involves replicating tried and tested processes that require specific skillsets. To do that, it’s essential that the business owns the necessary expertise, rather than a specific employee. Unfortunately, manufacturing know-how is often stored in the brain of the most experienced workers and is not passed on systematically.
Having a formalised training process protects the business form the potential loss of key employees and allows it to replicate processes in a consistent way, with the same level of quality regardless of who performs a given task. For example, companies might establish standard procedures and checklists for troubleshooting critical equipment, rather than automatically assigning this task to the most senior member of the maintenance team.
Due to the costs and technical expertise involved, automating production can be intimidating for small manufacturers. However, scaling up is not always a question of having huge floor space and brand-new equipment.
Repetitive tasks such as pick and place applications can be easily automated with compact, cost-efficient and easy to program cobots. For example, Eva by London-based start-up Automata is sold at less than £5,000 and can be easily set up with buttons built into the arm and a user-friendly graphical software.
Retrofitting existing equipment with smart sensors is also a great option to upgrade machinery without breaking the bank. Smart sensors gather data that can be used for predictive maintenance, thus minimising the total cost of ownership (TCO) of machines that, due to the necessity to increase and speed up production, will be used more intensively than in the past.
Efficient quality assurance practices, a properly trained workforce, and cost-effective but impactful automation technologies are the key to success when scaling up small manufacturing businesses.