Automation great for business, NZ Inc. and employees
Plans to automate production processes usually bring job cuts and layoffs to mind yet manufacturers who have gone down the automation path say it does not always deserve the bad rap it gets.
Many have found that automation not only fosters economic success but can also benefit employees. Auckland-based high tech wiring loom manufacturer Fero is a case in point.
Fero, a family owned and operated business that is located in Mt Wellington, Auckland, employs more than 60 people. Its customers include automotive, marine and appliance manufacturers. As well as stocking a range of components and cables, Fero specialises in contract manufacturing, assembly and processing wire related products.
Sales and Marketing Director Sam Fulton says the company is always looking for ways of doing things better, faster and cheaper for customers but reducing labour costs often takes a lower priority than might be assumed.
“No New Zealand manufacturer can compete with thirdworld countries on cheap labour so growing our workforce’s capability and knowledge and providing niche products and skills gives us a competitive edge locally and internationally.”
Automating as many processes as possible enables Fero to continually develop and upskill its workforce and gain higher returns from the work that they do.
“As is case for many manufacturers, automation enables us to get highly repeatable, high volume, high quality products to the market quickly. While customers enjoy obvious f low-on benefits in terms of speed, consistency and price, we have found that our employees and suppliers also benefit,” says Fulton.
One example involved automating a high-volume marine lighting componentry process that had previously been outsourced to an overseas manufacturing partner.
“Automating the process enabled us to bring it in-house – the manual work had previously been done off-shore to keep costs down. This not only resulted in our people gaining new skills, but also brought the roles involved in producing that product back here,” says Fulton. “As a result, we went from no hands-on New Zealand involvement to nine of our people’s roles expanding to include direct involvement in the automated process.
Those people all benefited from being upskilled to manage a range of processes associated with the automation, including maintenance, programming, material changes, overseeing the machine’s operation and quality inspection.
“Their jobs have become far more complex as a result – akin to the difference between riding a bicycle and driving a car.”
For example, a pre-automation role might centre on cutting wires into set lengths and winding wire onto hanks. This expands to include setting up the machine, basic maintenance, operating machinery, changing its programming and quality control.
“Learning these skills adds another string to their bow, gives them more variety and also increases the range of things they
can do within our business.”
Fulton commented that employees were sometimes nervous about learning new skills but gained confidence once they had done so.
Kelen Boonmixay, a production support team member at Fero, says she was initially excited and very nervous when asked if she would like to learn how to work on an automated line being put in place.
“Before my job only involved doing two things – helping set up wiring layups and cutting wires once the layup was done. It was quite repetitive,” she says.
Boonmixay liked the idea of working on something different: “I was wondering what this new machine was and found the idea of working on it fascinating. But at the same time I was very nervous and was wondering what would happen if I somehow broke the machine or made a mistake.”
She enjoys the greater variety and skills involved in working on the machine, along with the greater speed at which articles are produced. Furthermore, she has gained the knowledge and skills to be able to train others how to use the machine.
Fulton says that employees inevitably become more engaged in their jobs and more productive when they gain new skills. He says that engaged employees are more likely to make process improvement suggestions. For example, Fero is continuously improving the marine lighting component robot as a result employees’ suggestions.
“Nobody gets satisfaction from doing mind-numbingly boring and repetitive jobs day in and day out so it’s normal for productivity to increase when people are given variety and more fulfilling roles.”
He believes that automating processes results in an all-round win for Fero, its people and its customers.
In addition to fewer rejects, improved repeatability, enhanced cost-effectiveness, automation also has the f low-on benefit of the company utilising suppliers such as mechatronics, design and maintenance services providers who are further up the skill and value chain.
Automating as many low-skilled, low paid processes as possible has enabled Fero to train its employees for more complex and rewarding work associated with managing and maintaining automated processes. It has also provided opportunities for employees to advance their careers by being trained into programming, maintenance and design jobs.
Like many employers, Fero is experiencing skill shortages so automation provides a pathway for continuously upskilling its current workforce through retraining them to run more complex machinery.
“They also get to understand some of the complex lean manufacturing techniques that come with automation and continuous improvement.
Fulton comments that automation benefits New Zealand as a whole.
“Apart from enabling local manufacturers to keep labour costs competitive, thus making New Zealand more competitive with China and emerging third world manufacturing nations, automation helps to increase the nation’s overall skill base by moving us towards having a higher tech workforce.”