You get a lot of varied reactions when you mention the word “automation” to people. Some people fear for their jobs, envisioning some robot working faster and smarter than they do. Some people see their inherently flawed process just producing more crap faster. Some people see salespeople putting garbage into the system expecting magic to come out the other side. The commonality is that people see a black box that magically turns specifications into designs instantly. A good automation program actually isn’t all that far off from the black box, but the fears that people have about the box are actually the benefits of the automation tools.
The first fear that people have is being replaced by a machine. Well let’s face it folks, in a lot of Engineer-To-Order (ETO) and Configure-To-Order (CTO) companies, we ARE machines. We take sales information and spit out quotes all day. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t barely make it through Thermodynamics so that I could just plug and chug numbers all day. Automating the non-value added tasks, like some pre-sales work, frees the engineers up to do what we were meant to do, tough engineering validations and more importantly, New Product Development (NPD). Handling incoming sales volume is important to bringing in money, but developing new products to tap into new markets brings in a lot more money for the company.
The next thing that people say is that they’re process is too tough to automate. Nothing can be done automatically because so much of it is manual. While it’s true that you can’t automate everything, the reality is that the process of adopting automation forces you to re-evaluate your process. Your current process is probably 30 years old or more. It’s been tweaked a bit along the way, but it can’t possibly take into account the latest 3D technology or the tools that are available for design automation. You can’t just automate a process. You can’t just apply technology to a process. You need to make the technology and the process flexible enough to create a new, automated process.
Another big problem today, that people feel will halt any efforts to automate, is that the salespeople that collect the information rarely get all of the information required to quote a job. In some companies, every quote request is followed by a call to the customer to get more information. Automation can solve this by requiring all of the information before a salesperson can request a quote. Automation tools today, and even VB.NET and Excel can be used to create user interfaces that help salespeople get complete and accurate information.
The information is accurate because automation tools have a benefit beyond automation. They generally do validation as well. This means that the rules that are put in to automate are also used to make sure that the design is possible. This would mean the end to salespeople selling things that cannot be manufactured.
But automation isn’t for everyone. Some tasks require the art of the engineer. Some processes can only be partially automated, some completely automated, and some not at all. But the most important thing to remember is that the technology is new and you don’t know what it can do to your process. If you’re convinced that the way that you’re doing things now is the ultimate way, don’t automate. If you have an open mind, and are willing to accommodate technology and willing to bend technology to meet you halfway, then go for it.
BY: Paul Gimbel