Podcast: How Small and Medium-Sized Manufacturers Can Access Automation

March 11, 2024
In this episode of Great Question: A Manufacturing Podcast, Etienne Lacroix from Vention explains what DIY automation is and how smaller manufacturing companies can benefit.

Etienne Lacroix is the founder and CEO of Vention, a company that prides itself on making industrial automation accessible to all manufacturers with a cloud-first, self-serve platform. Etienne recently spoke with Smart Industry managing editor Scott Achelpohl about how fully automated factories are no longer exclusive to large-scale manufacturers with deep pockets. Etienne shows that the DIY approach to automation can allow smaller manufacturers to adopt new technologies and adapt to the changing industrial space.  

Below is an excerpt from the podcast:

SI: What is DIY automation exactly, and how does it have the effect of making automation itself more accessible for small and mid-size businesses or SMBs?

EL: I will start answering by talking about why small and medium businesses are not automating as much as they should today. And it's not because they face less cost pressure than the bigger enterprises. It's definitely not because they face less labor shortages than the bigger enterprises as well. I think the reason why we see small and medium manufacturers automating at a much lower rate than large enterprises is simply because it's not profitable for them to do.

If you think about a shop floor, most manufacturing assets will be custom made or unique. And that is mostly because manufacturers produce goods that are unique themselves and therefore deserve unique and custom assets. And today, if you want to create those custom assets, you're probably going to subcontract the help of an engineering firm or a system integrator to assist you through that journey, right? That system integrator will take various components from traditional providers of industrial automation and try to assemble them into a robot cell or automated equipment. And to do that, it's actually quite complex, and it will consume a significant amount of manhours. I like to say there's nothing more manual than industrial automation because of the sheer amount of engineering content needed to create those custom machines.

And that basically leads the cost of automation to double. You have to pay, obviously, for all the hardware and the technology from the traditional player. Plus, you have to pay for the engineering firm that might assist you through that journey. So what we're trying to do at Vention is to provide tools where manufacturing practitioners can actually do it by themselves. And that's really the core of do-it-yourself automation.

For do-it-yourself automation to be successful, there's a couple of things that need to be true. One is, we tend to favor an approach where components are plug and play, right? There's no wiring, terminal wires, terminal blocks, enclosures. All of those things are removed. They're constructed to pass. Where somebody who's a manufacturing professional, who has process knowledge but might not be a roboticist or control expert can figure it out by themselves. And as soon as this is true, we see those teams then start to, perhaps, take a first entry-level use case and then buy themselves what I call a platform. A place where the design aspect, the programming aspect, the deployment assistance, and the operational machine have been united by a digital workflow that makes the experience very, very simple. And as those businesses start with do-it-yourself, information grows. What we tend to see is they form advanced manufacturing teams. Initially, it might be a single person, but over time, is going to grow, and those teams will be responsible for driving the automation agenda internally for one or multiple plants. And that's really the trend we've been witnessing since 2017. Before then, everything was driven, perhaps, through external help, and we see more and more of those small and medium manufacturers, in order to reduce costs and make automation profitable for them, start to decide to do those projects by themselves.

Like this episode? Listen to "Manufacturers are abandoning analog and embracing digitalization to stay competitive and secure"

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