Quality, Automation, And Digital Transformation Why Not Just Talk About Progress?
Zero defects, total quality, customer satisfaction, process optimization, LEAN manufacturing, productivity, competitiveness. We could continue to complete with many more terms present in the reality that companies experience every day. That represents a challenge that can only be addressed by starting technological innovation and transformation processes—progress final.
At the national level, companies that manufacture goods in general and more specifically those dedicated to the automotive sector and the manufacture of industrial machinery are in a dilemma, or more graphically, trapped by a clamp: on the one hand, pressure from customers that high-quality demand products and adjusted prices and, on the other hand, pressure from competition from countries with lower wage costs or that are at a point of digital maturity higher than ours and compensate their wage costs with greater production efficiency thanks to the implementation of new technologies.
They outperform us in innovation, process improvement, productivity, and, ultimately, progress faster. For many years, more than a decade, we have based ourselves on the strategy of maintaining very tight salaries to be competitive. This strategy may have worked in the worst moments of the crisis that began in 2008 in which there was no reaction time, but it can no longer continue to be the lever on which to base our competitiveness.
Our companies’ competitiveness must be based on increasing productivity by improving the implementation of innovative technologies and improving production processes, eliminating inefficiencies and procedures that do not add value to the final product, but that require hours of operator work. Whose costs must be credited at the final price of the products, thus being placed in a circle from which one can only get out by innovating, transforming, ultimately progressing?
In this framework imposed by reality, we find companies, mainly SMEs, that carry out their activity in strategic industrial sectors (due to their size and added value), that compete internationally and in which inefficiencies are systematically detected in its processes that are supplied by the personal effort of the workers who focus on repetitive tasks and/or with low added value, but which are essential to guarantee the quality of the final product and the fulfillment of customer commitments.
These inefficient activities are partly (other factors add up, such as problems in education and low investment in public and private R&D&I) one of the countries in which more hours are worked but with a poor reflection on productivity, leaving us below the European average. And one of the leading causes is the poor penetration of new technologies.
When we talk about process improvement, efficiency, digital transformation, the ghost of robotization instantly appears: robots, automation, destroy jobs. And yes, we can reach that conclusion, if we only analyze that the entry of a robot into a production station or the automation of a product quality verification process directly impacts the loss of a position (or several) of work. But we would be doing a biased and shortsighted analysis.
Mainly because that robot or machine that automates the process has had to be designed by highly qualified personnel, it has been manufactured in an industrial plant, it has been programmed, distributed, and commercialized, so that behind each robot there is a value chain in which many highly qualified professionals have developed a product with high added value.
If we take the previous example to the world of software, it applies the same. Software robots (RPA) are continually being developed that automate information management processes that are otherwise carried out by people manually and in most cases without adding value to the process, merely being the person a “robot” that introduces the data in the various systems that manage the information, a paradox, right?
In the end, we dedicate more productive hours to repetitive, low-added-value processes instead of exploiting our ingenuity and intelligence (which the machines do not yet have and will take a long time to catch up) to add more value. Likewise, it has been shown that those countries with a higher level of technology and automation implementation are more productive and with lower levels of unemployment.
In short, the automation of processes is innovation and progress. Our species’ inherent progress cannot be blamed for the problems that appear and that we must be able to solve with other measures such as the promotion of constant training and relocation to higher positions.
As I said before, the most advanced countries in automation are those with the highest level of employment and wealth. It is not an immediate process, but you have to start. If we review the past, it has always been with disruptive technologies. Consider the invention of the wheel. The design of the printing press. The steam machine. The phone. All of them were disruptive at the time and swept away countless jobs that stopped adding value, but at the same time, new ones appeared, and new opportunities were created.