Article: Overcoming hurdles to manufacturing technology investment

Australian manufacturers are keen to invest in game-changing technologies with the potential to boost productivity but are held back by staffing challenges, skills gaps, a lack of familiarity with smart manufacturing tech, and investment decision paralysis.

We spoke with Erika Hughes, Commercial Director at Integra Systems, Cori Stewart, CEO at Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Hub and Jo Kitney, Managing Director at Kitney & Toolkit Solutions, for their thoughts on managing the risks and reaping the opportunities in manufacturing technology.

1. What do you believe are the most game-changing technologies available to manufacturers today?

For Hughes, the key to unlocking the benefits of technological investment lies with the adoption of Industry 4.0 practices.

“Many manufacturers are either slow to embrace the technology available to manage their production performance, or are not sure of the pathways available to fully maximise the benefits this technology can deliver,” she says. “For Australia to build its sovereign industrial capability, this is an area that we need to become leaders in, rather than followers. The flow-on effects from understanding and unlocking this technology in terms of waste minimisation, cost savings and employee empowerment have been proven, but all the automation, innovation and robotisation in the world cannot be fully utilised without the performance optimisation i4.0 practices can offer. Knowing how to unlock this will be the step change manufacturers need to become leaders in their field.”

Stewart nominated collaborative robotics (cobots) as an essential tool in this i4.0 environment. “In Australia, most manufacturing is mass-customised, personalised or entirely bespoke. Robots have not been a very good solution for jobs such as these in the past. But today, with collaborative robotics, new tools are being created as co-pilots for manufacturers that have the ability to use automation and deliver the benefits of worker safety, productivity, and creating new and novelty capability.”

Stewart also notes Augmented Reality is an excellent low-cost tool able to shorten the design-to-manufacture process for many manufacturers. “AR means we are able to see CAD drawings in space, quality assure products against digital files, undertake maintenance, assemble and install solutions, simulate different products and services in new environments, among other applications,” she says. “AR is simpler than many digital tools to adopt and is a terrific first step for companies to take on their digital transformation journeys.”

In her role as an Occupational Health and Safety expert, Kitney has witnessed the start of a new era of “safety-tech”; technologies designed to reduce risk and keep workers safe. “Examples include robots and cobots for manual tasks such as repetitive heavy lifting or handling hazardous materials, surveillance drones to reduce or replace the need for working at height, and wearable technologies that can monitor anything from heart rate to fatigue levels.”

Kitney warns that although wearables may seem the easiest to implement of these technologies, manufacturers need to manage the HR angle carefully and focus on maintaining personal privacy for workers.

2. What are the hurdles preventing manufacturers from maximising the benefits of their tech investments?

“Data,” says Stewart. “Manufacturers need to think of themselves as data businesses. Once there is an understanding about how the business creates, uses and can generate business intelligence from data, they embark on a never-ending but essential path to becoming a modern manufacturer.” 

Rockwell Automation’s 2023 State of Smart Manufacturing Report found that only 25% of surveyed leaders said they were extremely familiar with smart manufacturing technologies, despite 73% stating that smart manufacturing is very important. “This highlights the gap between manufacturer’s technological aspirations and the investment in skills they will need to get there,” says Hughes.

“Tapping into the skills of the future and understanding there may be an overhead loading resulting from this can be quite daunting,” says Hughes. “But seeing the new skills and knowledge that can drive business performance, catalysing better bottom-line results and return on investment, demands a shift in leadership mindset. Many cash-strapped manufacturers are struggling with this concept, but the payback period can often be short once the technology and skills are embraced. Leveraging the services available through government, industry groups and other initiatives will help manufacturers understand how to build the business case and pathways to maximise these benefits.”

Looking at the bigger picture, Kitney highlights the difficulty of overcoming hurdles to invest in new technology. “Hurdles to investment include digital readiness, the organisation’s posture on exploring and adopting technology, their technology roadmap, business improvement, change-management models and approaches,” she says. “Organisations need to scale barriers to digital adoption and success, including experience, regulations, skills, rate of change, confidence, and managing the impacts of the technology being introduced.”

3. Where do you see the greatest opportunities to reduce costs and boost efficiency in manufacturing?

Fast and effective ways to boost efficiency include streamlined processes, digital productivity and machinery optimisation measurement tools. But it can’t happen without data integrity.

“Unlocking the data is one thing; understanding the data is another, and then measuring against the data is the ultimate result,” says Hughes. “Data integrity is critical with this journey. Embedding this in the company culture is a must, and educating users and enabling them to help drive efficiency gains is essential.”

Hughes points to the easy wins that become available through establishing a feedback loop with your team. “It’s amazing how much the production team know, and how circling back with this knowledge can uplift production management. Having a full circle of input and management empowers all levels within the operation. Strong leadership is absolutely key for this to be successful.”

Stewart sees enormous potential in manufacturers collaborating as part of an industry-wide learning ecosystem. “This is important not just for implementing digital transformation projects in a business, but for attracting staff and being part of a network of capability. Collaboration also unlocks business opportunities,” she says.

4. How can manufacturers reduce the risk around a technology investment decision?

Decision paralysis is very real. According to Rockwell, 71% of C-level executives said the main barrier to growth was technology decision paralysis. A large part of the problem is an excess of options on the market, but executives are also held back by the risks involved in getting a major technology investment decision wrong. So, how can manufacturers de-risk tech investment decisions?

“Come to the ARM Hub!” Stewart says. “That is, use facilities and resources available to industry to explore and test options, and use your supply chain networks to gather market intelligence. At the ARM Hub, we provide a range of services such as design-led workshops to explore with experts if a solution is unique, possible and able to meet the market need. If new research needs to be done, explore grant options that have been established to financially de-risk the cost of innovation.”

“Risk can be reduced by including a health and safety professional in technology development and adoption,” advises Kitney. “Organisations must consider all new tech from a safety solution standpoint alongside its other benefits.”

Hughes again urges industry collaboration to help reduce the fear around technology investment. “Manufactures need to canvass the industry for knowledge and support,” she says. “Tap into the experience of your peers and undertake site visits to other manufacturers to benchmark how your operation is tracking against industry leaders.”

Hughes suggests several other excellent places to start:

  • University support programs including Swinburne’s Factory of the Future and Deakin’s ManuFutures
  • Other research groups who can help pave the pathway and de-risk the decisions that need to be made
  • Government support opportunities through education, information sessions, and training co-funding such as the Victorian Government’s Digital Jobs program, and grant funding

“The commitment to building Australian sovereign industrial capability is strong and with the right support, starting with your local industry group and gleaning as much information as possible is a great place to start,” says Hughes. “These groups are created to help businesses grow and tap into necessary support services to help de-risk these pathways.”

Erika Hughes, Cori Stewart and Jo Kitney will join other inspirational women working at the forefront of the industry at the Women in Manufacturing Summit 2023, 28-30 November at the Aerial UTS Function Centre, Sydney. Learn more.

To access the detailed conference program, download the brochure here.