Automation. In the subsequent years that followed the dawn of the industrial revolution up to and including the modern age of manufacturing, entire professions have sprung forth in response to the unquenchable need to improve the processes through which goods are produced. To be blunt, the success of entire economies is tied directly to the automation of manufacturing; automation (and by extension, mass-production), after all is inextricably linked to the diminishing costs associated with producing goods, making them affordable by larger segments of the population. Simply put, automation allows products to be made at a cheaper cost, in volumes that cannot be matched by the hands of the human worker – and that means higher profits.
The continued, insatiable need for process refinement has ensured that those seeking a career in PLC programming or robotics can undoubtedly expect a certain measure of job security for the foreseeable future – as sophisticated technology continues to emerge, it will allow more complex processes to be automated, creating more opportunities for those who would seek to develop and service that technology.
Automation Done Right: Taking a Page Out of the Starbucks Manual
Coffee, as a product, has remained relatively unchanged for centuries and yet, the methods by which it is cultivated, roasted, brewed, and delivered to the end user have evolved dramatically – and continues to do so.
For a worldwide company like Starbucks, selling brewed beverages to millions of customers each and every day is not enough to maintain a dominant position in their highly competitive market; expanding their product line to offer soluble, individually wrapped coffee packs to coffee drinkers on the go has undeniably been integral to their continued success. The challenge: to not simply develop a product that appeals to the instant coffee demographic, but rather to produce a product that is virtually indistinguishable in terms of flavour from its trademark brewed coffee.
Starbuck’s new plant, located in Augusta, Georgia, is a marvel of engineering and an example of the efficacy of automation. Once entered the manufacturing process the coffee beans are never again touched by human hands. From start to finish, the status of the beans is monitored by a facility-wide network, which allows for minimal human intervention. The facility was designed with process flexibility in mind, allowing the coffee company to adjust their process to reflect changes in the market, make adjustments based on the desired final product, and increase volume should the need arise.
Having the flexibility to add and remove product lines under the roof of a single facility is one thing, but the true ingenuity of the plant is the virtually endless possibilities it offers in terms of packaging.
There is growing demand by consumers for smaller package sizes. Having the flexibility to adjust package size without interrupting the production of traditional products (the plant is capable of continuous production and does not rely on batch runs to produce their goods) ensures the Starbucks brand can be offered to their customers in many different configurations.
Looking back to a simpler time in manufacturing, a company was limited in what they could produce. Something that is considered to be so simple these days like alternating package sizing to meet a custom order could, in the manufacturing days of yore, halt production for an undetermined amount of time – something that in today’s global marketplace is completely unacceptable. That’s why plants like the one operated by Starbucks is a model for future endeavours.
As automated as they may be, these factories do not run themselves, requiring a highly-skilled workforce to keep the process running smoothly and uninterrupted.
The shift in the means of production also means that with it, there is a shift in the skills demanded of the workforce. For many workers, these fast-paced changes can be sobering – particularly for those within the workforce who feel they may be too old to return to school in an effort to learn the required skills.
To that end, many educational institutions, offer a number of certificate programs with a focus on adult education. Many of them are tailored to meet the needs of the mature student, offering the flexibility unique to online courses to bolster a worker’s skill set.
As an example, the Automation Technician program offered by GBC provides students with an introduction to the world of automated manufacturing systems as well as process control and programming of PLCs and robotics systems. This knowledge not only provides you with the basic knowledge of a quickly expanding industry, it also provides you with the skills you will need to have an impact in the modern era of product manufacturing.