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3 Questions to Ask Before Automating Your Business (Insider Tips By a Local SME Boss)

Are you ready to embark on automation? Ask yourself these questions first. Many SMEs have been told they should quickly jump on the latest automation trends already. Better to get a headstart, right? Hear from fellow SME Owner, Mr Toh Chin Lock, Founder of Common Alliance Engineering, who tells us otherwise.

2020 saw the rise of automation continue its takeover of companies around the world. Regardless of industry, business sector or company size, automation is here to stay. SMEs in particular have suffered the brunt of the automation wave, with most scrambling to embark on the automation journey with little to no resources.

Thankfully, our government has stepped in, with four budgets this year highlighting the various grants and initiatives aimed at helping businesses along the automation journey. But even with financial help, “How to automate?” remains the top question on many SME owners’ minds.

During the course of my work, I’ve met many small business owners who have come to me with their struggles while embarking on the automation journey. Some are indifferent, kicking the can down the road and hoping that the problem goes away by itself one day. But most are the complete opposite: Eager to keep up with the market and their competitors, they invest in the latest, top-notch, premium technology, only to realise their business is not necessarily ready for it yet.

To avoid such situations, our automation journey should be intricately thought through and planned for. If you’re about to jump onboard the latest automation tech that 2021 brings, ask yourself these key questions before deciding to invest your resources.

1. What are my business bottlenecks?

First things first, before taking a nosedive into the latest automation trends, it is important that SME owners do an internal assessment. Every company has their own problems and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Identifying flaws in your company’s processes requires time and intention. Start by mapping and analyzing your processes, and try looking at them from a broader perspective. Look at your competitors for ideas on how their processes look like, in order to derive your own competitive advantage.

Once you have identified the problems in your bottlenecks, go one step deeper by digging into the causes. As an SME owner, oftentimes, you may not get the answer right away. Arrange an open dialogue and interactive meeting with everyone involved in the process in order to get to the root cause.

Finally, once you have identified your bottlenecks and root cause, it’s time to start working out solutions. Here’s where you should weigh your options:

●       Should you automate?
●       Is it worth the cost and risks?
●       Which solution provider is best equipped to help me solve my bottlenecks?


Most SME owners do not have the luxury of limitless resources, so it’s best you choose a solution that brings about the most significant improvements. Following the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule: For many outcomes, roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes. Ask yourself what automation solution is best positioned to help you solve your biggest bottlenecks.

2. How do I manage my risks?

Risk is an integral part of the automation process. Risks exist right from the start, through all stages of planning and execution. Some organisations are more prone to certain risks than others, for example, the threat of a breach in data security and privacy will more adversely affect a company that has a higher reliance on system and infrastructure reliability.

With automation comes increased complexity and scale of organisational risks, hence, it is extremely crucial that SME owners shift from a risk-averse mindset to a risk-management one. Too often, risk management is treated as a compliance issue that can be solved by drawing up different types of rules and ensuring that all employees follow through with them. Instead, managing risks should be strategic choices that companies need to anchor in their business and implementation processes.

This process also involves identifying the risks faced and properly evaluating, communicating, and addressing them. As an SME owner, you should also consistently communicate your vision with your employees. Allow them to experiment without fear of failure and help to foster a culture of innovation.

Be prepared for certain job functions to be displaced due to automation. Ask yourself:

●       How will your manpower be affected?

●       How are you going to restructure your staff?

●       Will you be encouraging them to upskill?

●       What courses should they take to stay relevant within your company?

To digitally transform your organisation, you have to first overcome risk aversion, embrace risk, encourage innovation and monitor how the change will affect your organisation.

3. How can I replicate what works for me?

With automation, an improvement in productivity is a given. But how do you sustain a higher productivity and output in order to stay competitive? Once you have developed a process that works for your organisation, it is only natural that you think about replicating that success in all your other processes.

Every company does it differently, but typically, each transaction represents dozens of activities and processes that take it from start to finish. What those processes are and how well and consistently they are performed represent the success of the business.

A typical process includes assembly, testing and data collection. For example, if you want to trace a faulty component, your database has to be comprehensive and intuitive enough to detect the batch it was produced in, and ringfence others that have a high chance of being faulty so that you can specifically recall only the faulty products.

In order for your production process to be flexible to such changes, it has to be configurable. With this data in our control, we will then be able to improve traceability of our process. Ask yourself these key questions:

●       Will you be adapting new production into your existing line?

●       Does your database allow you to record the data points required to scale up your production?

●       At what point do you need traceability of your production to kick in?

Is this the right automation trend for my SME?

Even though staying on top of the latest trends in technology can be crucial to business growth, SME owners should not dive headfirst into the newest trends in the market or technologies competitors have been doing.

To minimize the risk of having little to no return on investment, dig deeper and identify the existing faults in your business. Look out for problems and bottlenecks, identify the root causes, and work out solutions from there.

Before implementing any solution, do a risk assessment study and weigh your options. Find out how the solution will affect your business and what are the detrimental effects that come along with it.

Lastly, once you have gained traction in your processes, think about how you can further replicate the success. Try dissecting your production line and see how you can improve it to be more configurable and flexible, increasing the number of data points in the event of production hiccups.

With these in place, you could be well placed to embark on your automation journey.

About the author:

Mr Toh Chin Lock founded the company in 2003 and subsequently renamed it as Common Alliance Engineering (CAE) Pte Ltd in 2007. With rapid expansion and growth, Common Alliance Manufacturing Pte Ltd was formed in 2010 to provide complete solutions for valued customers.

CAE specializes in designing, conceptualization, prototyping, final product delivery and providing a one-stop solution, including project management. Recognizing the importance of quality and efficiency, they attained ISO 9001 certification in 2014. With vast project and engagement experiences, they provide expert advice and solutions to customers while maximizing every budget and resource.

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