The manufacturing sector, along with industries across the board, are undergoing a revolutionary shift due to innovation in automation robotics and the internet of things.

The 1st annual Manufacturing Innovation Summit in Barrie, ON, brought together leading executives, investors, and entrepreneurs from around Ontario to explore how new innovative technologies are changing the manufacturing landscape.

Dan Ritchie, President of R&M Poleline Products, was a featured speaker on a roundtable panel discussion entitled: Lights out Manufacturing: The adoption of Robotics. He shared his insights on the challenges and opportunities that innovation brings from the perspective of an SME that is at the beginning of the automation journey.


Sink or Swim

Manufacturers of all sizes can no longer afford to overlook innovation. From the simplest of spreadsheet tasks to full on work, innovation is starting to catch up to job shops where turnover can be high. As technology from large automotive enterprises starts to trickle down, it’s critical for smaller companies to exploit the advantages of reusing it at a lower cost.

“Automation companies and suppliers need to capitalize on new innovative process opportunities to increase manufacturing capabilities and maintain a competitive edge,” says Mr. Ritchie. “The game is always changing. Just when you’ve decided how you’re going to automate and put the best technology forward, in a snap of the finger, the dynamics change, and you find yourself behind again. So it’s important to future proof your automation.”

Advice for SMEs

According to Mr. Ritchie, SMEs shouldn’t be daunted when facing innovation, adding that there are key strategies smaller companies can employ to help ensure success when adopting new technology. “The first is to make sure you have a plan to get your staff on board before you start,” he says. “Because if not, you’re sure to fail; innovation can create worry among employees.”

Many SMEs mistakenly perceive innovation and automation as expensive, and many companies aren’t sure where to start when staring down a potential price tag that can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But Mr. Ritchie is quick to point out that automation can provide many benefits including employee safety, quality control, and cost savings.

“The reality is that we divided and scaled our ROI first within the quarter, then took those savings into six-month ROI, and then over a year,” says Mr. Ritchie. “Working in smaller increments allowed us to springboard forward. And once you get the ball rolling, it moves pretty fast.”

Manufacturers need to be realistic about potential savings and realize that automation is not going to replace all labour; staff and technology may initially need to work hand in hand. “Don’t overestimate the savings,” says Mr. Ritchie. “Innovation is about creating capacity and having the ability to refill that capacity.”


Industry-Academic Partnerships: Integral for Success

R&M Poleline Products has capitalized on the mutual benefits of working with academia to drive local employment as well as company innovation. Working in partnership with the Georgian College Centre for Applied Research and Innovation, the company increased its knowledge base and generated innovation cost savings while providing students with essential hands-on experience.

“We started out with value stream mapping, and that’s progressed to equipment builds,” says Mr. Ritchie. “Part of our strategy will be to align and support students that need projects to get started, It was a win-win situation.”

Through maintaining a big-picture approach, including its employees in the process, and leveraging incremental savings to springboard forward, R&M Poleline Products has become a model for SMEs looking to take advantage of the opportunities innovation has to offer.