June 17, 2014


The scope and direction of this article would be to introduce the concept of bottleneck in an industry and show how eliminating them is a step towards achieving what is called 'competitive advantage'. In today’s world achieving this is easier said than done, businesses must boost their operational efficiency wherever and whenever possible. It’s a given that – if a company fails to operate efficiently it will soon find itself at the verge of extinction.

Let’s start with an understanding of what exactly a bottleneck is and what automation has anything to do with it? A bottleneck (or constraint) in a supply chain refers to the resource that requires the longest time in operations for a certain demand. An important thing about bottlenecks is that they determine the throughput of a supply chain. Now this brings us to another term - Throughput, which indicates the productivity of a process, a machine, a procedure or a system over a unit period. It’s a part of the Theory of Constraints of business management. The guiding ideology of which is that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. So the important thing to note that if bottlenecks are not recognized fast enough, it’s highly likely that you miss out on a chance to increase the overall throughput of the system in consideration.

Now that we know what a bottleneck is and how it affects the productivity of a system let’s start to look at how they can be minimized, I say minimize because in no system can bottlenecks be completely eliminated for the simple reason that as you move on from removing one bottleneck to another a new one seems to appear, though the overall performance of the system may have improved there would still be scope for improvement at every stage of operation. These improvements in processes can be brought upon by better utilization of existing resources or by implementing new techniques. One such method would be to adopt automation, the degree of which may vary across industries.  Automation is a technique of making a process or a system to operate by itself (automatically). It encompasses many vital elements and job functions and virtually provides benefits to almost every industry in existence for example:

  • Manufacturing (e.g. Food, Pulp & Paper )
  • Transportation (e.g. Rail, Automobile, Aerospace)
  • Utilities (e.g. Electricity, Oil and Gas, Telecom)
  • DefenseAnd many more...
 The process of automation in industries happened a long time back, in fact the vision of a mechanised world flourished long before the term “automation” was coined and only recently (about 45 years ago) did the automated computer operations begin with IBM’s OS/360. It was a supervisory program that managed system resources and provided automatic transition from one job to another. This was called batch processing. Subsequent developments took place afterwards from simple job scheduling processes to fully automated assembly lines (mostly adopted in the auto industry, a human touch is still required in almost every industry no matter how advanced the automation process is). Initially automation was done only to either those activities that helped reduce time and effort to implementing them in specific areas in the industry where manual labour, which over a period of time could lead to fatigue and eventual slowdown in the entire process. These are key areas wherein processes can begin to slow down and create bottlenecks, and automation makes sure that specific areas (may be a small unit or an entire process) in the production line, usually those where critical tasks that may either be complex in nature or have many tasks following the same are completed on time and delays are minimized as much as possible.

Automated assembly line - car chassis construction 
Automation of processes that involve critical tasks usually help reduce the bottleneck, but it should be taken care that the bottleneck machine (the machine whose process time determines the entire system’s time) should not be made to over-work. There are certain ways to effectively manage these bottlenecks which include:

Optimising the bottleneck machine speed: It is usually assumed that the bottleneck machine, if operated at full speed would make the process more efficient. However this is not entirely true as faster running may increase downtime due to maintenance issues, breakdowns or even reduce yield due to poor quality product. 

More operators for the bottleneck machines: Cross-training of operators to ensure that the bottleneck machines do not idle due to lack of operators and wherever possible the bottleneck machine should be run to full potential, this might seem as an expensive option but the overall impact can be positive.

Reducing wastage in set ups and changeovers: The benefit of having a bottleneck is the reduction in changeover times for non-bottleneck machines. Focus should be on constraints and chokepoints and techniques like SMED (Single Minute Exchange of Die) will reduce changeover period. 

Continuous bottleneck management: As mentioned earlier when one bottleneck is taken care of another one appears and becomes the focus of attention. There are various factors such as the product mix, raw material variations etc. that change from day to day and managing bottlenecks becomes a continuous process.

Other factors such as effective maintenance and provision of constant buffer can minimize scrap and also go further by automating product flow through a bottleneck based on the drum buffer rope ‘pull’ scheduling of Lean Manufacturing.

So, how is automation linked to bottleneck and how do you finally justify such a costly process? 

Some of the questions that are needed to be asked in order for considering automation are
  • How much time will be freed up because of automation?
  • What are the business opportunities that might be lost, if any, because of automation?
  • Would automation in any way improve the safety of the workers?
  • How does automation improve traceability and reliability?
  • How exactly would automation enhance the efficiency and standardization of procedures?

Now if all these reasons prompt to choose an automated system then how would it impact bottlenecks, will this actually work?

Let’s take the example of IBMs – Service virtualisation and see how automation in testing has contributed to improvements in bottlenecks.

IBM recently announced a comprehensive test automation solution that can reduce the costs of testing while assisting the development teams to come to a balance between quality and speed. How it works is by testing the bottleneck by virtualizing dependent services without having to reconfigure the original environment. Save time and avoid configuration errors that might affect the success of the testing procedure. Offering a comprehensive set of testing capabilities, the new Rational test automation solution:
  1. Simplifies by the creation of a virtualised test environment that can be easily deployed, shared, and updated.
  2. Provides for a comprehensive integration testing in a code-free solution that is easy to learn and enhances tester productivity.
  3. Integrates the new capabilities with Rational Quality Manager and the IBM Rational solution for Collaborative Lifecycle Management

Another day-to-day example, though not an industrial one would be of traffic control and monitor. The automation process of the traffic lights have made traffic congestion much lesser. Heavy traffic loads on highways often become bottleneck to journey. Traffic load of roads change very frequently and a static signaling system fails to meet the expectation of people. Traffic engineering uses automated techniques to achieve safe and efficient movement of people and goods on roadways. Bottlenecks here would mean road blocks that can make traffic come to a standstill.

Apart from identifying and providing a solution to bottlenecks, automation helps in other key areas of operations as well, for example 

Cost Reduction: Automation through software is a more intelligent approach to cost containment. Most modern servers have low operating costs and better efficiencies. Automation therefore results in higher productivity, reliability, availability, and increased performance which inevitably leads to better service for the end user, and reduced operating costs.

Productivity: Automating the production schedule can increases the overall batch throughput. In the early days, computer throughput was limited to and determined by how fast the operators could reset switches on the console. The automations solutions today do not allow the computer to remain idle while waiting for the operator to release the next job. 

Reliability: We understand that productivity is an obvious benefit of automation. However, reliability is a gem that sparkles with automation. It is the cornerstone of good operations management and without it there would be complete chaos. Some of the more critical jobs such as releasing jobs, ensuring proper communication, performing backups etc. are performed by entry level individuals and this poses a threat to reliability as there is a high risk of human error which in turn leads to bottlenecks.  Automated operations can handle these functions in a more reliable manner and thus relieve operations personnel of tedious and boring manual tasks.

Performance: Though advancements in computers have made enterprises faster and less expensive every year, the demands always catch up and eventually exceed the level of capability that a company’s computer system possesses. This leaves a lot of companies wanting to improve their performance and without up-to-date software and hardware that is able to meet the demands of production it is impossible to have an efficient workflow.

In the end, it’s not just about reducing costs, faster productivity or any of these factors individually, but the amalgamation of all these things working in tandem to improve overall quality and scope of the business, in order to satisfy the customer needs. Automation is merely one of the means to achieve this.

 “About the time we can make the ends meet, somebody moves the ends”
                                                                                                    - Herbert Hoover

This article is written by Gautham Jayan who is a PGDM student of the 2013-15 batch of IIM Raipur. Gautham holds a B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Kerala . He can be reached at pgp13123.gautham@iimraipur.ac.in

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