Q & A With CIRAS Automation Leader, Andrew Friend

 Q: Tell me about your role at CIRAS and they type clients you work with?

Andrew Friend, Automation Project Manager

A: I lead our automation team of four, which includes myself, Eric Higgins, Kirk Haaland, and Ty Hill.  We generally work with manufacturers, helping them understand what’s possible with automation and helping them prioritize and justify specific automation opportunities.  We excel at helping clients make the next step on their automation journey no matter what stage they are at.

Q: You work with a lot of Iowa Manufacturers – what does everybody in the industry seem to be talking about right now in regards to technology and automation?

A: Workforce is still a big concern for most of our clients.  They simply can’t hire enough people, leading us to help them figure out ways to better utilize their existing workforce.  In practice, this can look like finding ways to automate tasks that no one wants to do; tasks that are dull, dirty, or dangerous.

Product or process quality is also a big concern for most clients.  In this area, we help businesses figure out how to automate inspections or data collection, so they can better optimize their production processes.

Q: What do you see is the greatest opportunity for manufacturers in Iowa right now?

A: Currently, we seem to be at a point in the Iowa economy where workforce is still an issue, but businesses are also wondering about the threat of a recession.  To be successful in either of these scenarios, I believe companies should concentrate on improving their productivity programs, which helps drive costs down and improves employee productivity.  Many people may not realize this, but automation is really the second step after productivity.  It’s nearly impossible to automate a non-standard process.

Q: What do you think is the greatest barrier that is preventing companies from taking the first step?

A: I think the greatest barrier is not fully understanding the benefits automation can provide, leading companies to under prioritize productivity/automation improvements, which could reduce their competitive position long term.

Q: In what ways have you seen automation change the manufacturing industry in Iowa over the course of your career?

A: Manufacturing automation is generally following the trend of consumer automation.  It’s all about data.  How can a person collect the right amount of information, at the right time, to make a well-informed decision?  This is a double-edged sword however.  Too much data, or not well understand data can actually lead people to make incorrect assumptions, leading to potentially bad decisions.  My advice is to only collect and display the information you need based on the question you are trying to answer.

Q: Do you have any predictions for how the industry will change over the next five years? How about 25?

A: In the next five years, I think we will continue to see more of what we have today: a continued emphasis on data use in manufacturing, along with more implementation of machine learning and artificial intelligence.

In 25 years, what I hope we will see is more open source hardware & software technology, enabling easier integration between brands and platforms.  I also predict that automation tech will get easier to purchase on the fly (i.e. purchasing automation online), with standardized applications (i.e. machine tending) that will take less skill to implement than today.

Q: What advice do you have for manufacturers who are considering investment into technology?

A: #1: Start small.  First, pick a technology that is lower cost, or easier to implement.  Once you have proven that technology, and your people trust it, then pick something more complicated or expensive to automate.

#2: Have a plan.  What small steps are you going to take to automate this year?  What big things are you going to work towards automating in 5 years?   What staff / skills do I need to support these new technologies?

Q: Do you have any closing thoughts?

A: I talked about a lot of big picture ideas in this article.  CIRAS can help you break these ideas into manageable, bite-sized chunks through engagements such as educational events, digital lab tours and proof of concept tests, or simple one-on-one conversations on the phone.  We are your resource to help navigate the wide world of technology.

For more information, contact your local strategic advisor.