In the manufacturing world, “automation” often refers to automated mechanical devices that function solely on the shop floor. While this type of operational automation has allowed for leaner, more efficient supply chains, significantly reduced payrolls and increased production, some back offices continue to rely on antiquated means of communication — i.e. spreadsheets, email updates or verbal confirmations — creating a 30-year disconnect between these processes and the advancements on the shop floor. Despite the benefits of taking advantage of the automation applications offered in some ERP systems — such as improved visibility and control of processes, better cost management and reduced errors, paperwork and bottlenecks — most manufacturers remain hesitant to adopt. In fact, in a poll of more than 100 business executives, the vast majority (82 percent) noted having either few or no automated workflows in their businesses.
While the term “automation technology” is broadly used, “workflow automation” specifically relates to software applications that help control and streamline back office processes among different employees and teams, including sales, finance, operations, customer service and HR. For smaller manufacturers, the assumed cost of workflow automation can hinder implementation, as the insights and optimization provided by these tools are often only associated with larger businesses. However, workflow automation is both accessible to, and critical for, small to medium-sized manufacturers to use in today’s increasingly competitive market.
Here are three ways you can get the most out of automation applications to streamline your back office and create a more efficient and effective workflow throughout the entire organization:
- Audit current processes: Before integrating an automation tool into your existing ERP system, you first need to evaluate how current processes operate. Typically, without automation, existing back offices are chaotic and unorganized, relying heavily on passing paperwork and spreadsheets back and forth between many individuals to manage tasks. The first step in having an automation tool help alleviate issues is to define how the process should optimally flow. Once you have outlined the ideal flow of work within the process, you can assign large chunks of it to be automated with your application; as the tool begins expediting manual data entries and alerts, you’ll immediately notice the decrease in process time and increase in overall efficiency.
- Set up triggers and actions: Now that you’ve begun implementation, you’ll need to establish a set of rules to direct the automation. Much like a simple email filter, automation tools best respond to triggers in systems — such as sales orders, inventory updates, invoice requests, etc. With your newly facilitated orderly processes, identifying triggers will be easy, and from there you can set up actions for each notification. For example, the tool can send an alert to the customer service representative immediately following the trigger of a missing inventory item, allowing them to update the customer on their order. Other actions include creating documents for invoicing, updating data across the warehouse and back office, developing error logs and generating PDF reports to be disseminated across the business. With these triggers and actions set up, the tool will continue to automatically manage core aspects of the process, freeing your employees up for more value-added activities.
- Create supply chain transparency: As previously noted, much of the disconnect between the back office and shop floor is the result of a heavy reliance on spreadsheets. To eliminate the back and forth, automation applications can be set to inform employees across the organization of project statuses. Fully implemented, a workflow system can cover every aspect of the manufacturing process – from sales, to orders and production, to finance and invoicing. With an automation tool, you’ll be able to automatically input orders, alert the finance team, evaluate inventory and create the shop ticket all at once. As the order is fulfilled, you’ll also be able to monitor for any bottlenecks and manage employee hours spent on one project. Not only will this keep everyone in the process up to date on an order, but it will also help you to better service customers by providing an accurate estimated time of completion and delivery.
It’s time to break the bad habit of letting orders sit in inboxes and eliminate the outdated paper chase. Implementing an automation tool that organizes your back office, provides real-time insight to employees from every department and manages tasks more efficiently will give you a system that acts as a virtually error-free, 24/7 employee.
Dan Griffin is Director of Product Management and Product Marketing at Exact, Macola Division.