Example of well-executed infill development in a downtown area

By Colin Wilson, WMEP Senior Automation Consultant

Automation is a hot topic with Wisconsin manufacturers, yet the barrier to entry has traditionally been high. This includes not only the cost of equipment but the time commitment from internal resources to:

  • Decide which projects to tackle
  • Evaluate potential technologies
  • Research third-party integrators
  • Manage the project from scope development to acceptance testing on site

The business side of automation investment is often lost in the details of evaluating the technical aspects of the project. The quickest project to implement may not necessarily be the one that best supports internal strategies for growth. Manufacturers who understand why their customers buy from them can leverage automation to support their market strengths and fuel growth.

Thus, smart investments in automation stem from solid market research and the very type of in-depth evaluation of options that is often time- and/or cost-prohibitive. The new Automation Advisor assessment offered by the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership’s (WMEP’s) Manufacturing Solutions is designed to help companies evaluate their options and make smart decisions at less time and cost to them—so they’ll feel confident in making the best choice for their company’s growth, and not just the fastest and easiest first step that may not serve the company well in the long run.


Automation can help increase overall productivity in a manufacturing environment. In a primary role, automating an application can increase overall throughput and reduce quality impacts. As automated cells are linked together, manufacturers can reduce overall work in progress within their facility. Automation can also help support manual processes to maximize the “process on-time” where operators add value.

It’s important to note that automation is the second phase for productivity increases. Manufacturers can first increase productivity through system implementations (e.g., 5S, Lean Initiatives, Work Cell Flow, etc.) to establish a foundation of best practices, which automation builds on.


A decade ago, when manufacturers invested in automation they had to follow the “pick two” rule, which stated that equipment could be fast, flexible or cost-effective—and instructed that they could pick any two out of the three, but couldn’t have all three. Today, conventional wisdom has changed.

Technology advancements in component identification and handling are allowing high-mix, low-volume manufacturers to implement systems. With these new developments, manufacturers can reduce order reaction time, benefit from off-hour production, and eliminate minimum batch sizing changeover issues. As automation continues to embrace flexible technologies, manufacturers will be able to implement automated cells and continue to provide the fast turnaround that their customers expect.

Labor issues

Whether the issue is finding the right labor, retaining labor, or just finding labor in the first place, manufacturers are currently struggling with tight labor pools. They are evaluating automation as a solution to increase throughput and fuel growth. Automating processes can help manufacturers avoid competing for high-demand skilled labor. Investing in automation changes the type of labor required and provides a path for existing employees to be up-skilled. The ability to reduce the headaches associated with finding and managing labor, while increasing existing employees’ skill sets and increasing throughput to support growth, is a winning trifecta.

Customer perspectives

A manufacturer that invests in itself sends a strong signal to its customers that it intends to be a long-term partner. The quality improvements that can come with automating applications can help increase supplier scores. Faster turnaround times will benefit customers, as well as producing potential cost decreases. Automation can help provide the bandwidth for growth with existing customers and new customers alike.

Investing in automation is a large undertaking, but can be a very manageable process. It is critical for manufacturers to understand the ROI of potential projects and to have a system in place to evaluate the associated risks. Manufacturers who understand their market strengths and have strategic initiatives for growth can leverage automation to help them achieve their growth targets.

With more companies seeing the value in automation, Wisconsin can lead the way in improving productivity and advancing global competitiveness to drive economic growth for our state.

Learn more about WMEP’s Automation Advisor assessment and how your company can receive customized guidance and support.