Humans are sentient beings who think and make cognitive decisions. These attributes, among many others, coexist with the innate human desire to learn and grow. Thus, it is fair to say the majority of us in or entering the workforce would prefer a career that leverages our minds as opposed to one involving repetitive tasks.
Lucky for us, technological advancements are dynamically changing many industries by automating mundane, repetitive, and manual activities. Freeing human labor from these tasks allows employees to take on more engaging and interesting roles while generating benefits for both enterprises and consumers, including reduced costs, better quality products, greater quantities and faster time to market.
As an example of a category witnessing great benefits from implementing automation, we can look at the packaging industry. Companies that have adopted robotic packaging automation use software designed to mimic human movements including handling products, picking and placing items, packing cases, and palletizing in a routine and efficient manner. The use of robots in packaging allows for more flexibility, accuracy, and consistency on production lines.
Aside from packaging, many other industries have taken on automation such as self-checkouts at grocery stores and self-check-in kiosks at hotels and airports. However, there are still many companies in various industries that seem to be indecisive in whether to adopt, including those in the manufacturing industry, which perhaps is the one that has the most to gain.
Factors in Deciding Whether to Introduce Robotic Automation
Although the reasons a manufacturer may have chosen to hold off on robotic automation may vary, three conflicting factors may drive the speed and need to automate include expense, lack of skill sets and experience in the workforce, and safety.
We’ve all heard the saying, “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” Well, manufacturers, for the most part, abide by such adage, waiting for equipment to fail before being replaced. Such behavior makes for a long buying cycle and when it does come time to buy, it is often seen to be more cost-effective to replace the specific piece of equipment that failed as opposed to adopting an entirely new automated system.
Fortunately, more and more suppliers are now offering Robotics as a Service (RaaS), an accelerating trend in which robotic service providers can deploy robotic services to cater to the growing demand for advanced automation capabilities across multiple industries. Under this approach, providers lease their products to customers as a full service. This “try before you buy” business model comes with multiple advantages for buyers including more predictable costs and less upfront capital outlay as users can deploy solutions without the huge initial investment.
It is also worth noting that automation does not need to be the complete changing of an entire process. Today, with collaborative robots, partial automation is feasible. Additionally, modular configurations also offer manufacturers the ability to pinpoint specific areas in a process that can be automated to avoid the high cost of full adoption.
Lack of Skill Sets and Experience in the Workforce
Baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) grew up in a world where manufacturing was king as many held jobs in factories and on assembly lines. Today, however, we are seeing a growing shortage of skilled and expert workers in the manufacturing industry as more and more boomers are headed to retirement in droves of about 10,000 a day.
Given this retirement epidemic and the dearth of skilled replacement workers, manufacturers, like a deer caught in the headlights, can’t readily decide what to do to save themselves. Manufacturers have been slow to react and want proof of the efficiency to be created by various automated systems, such as collaborative robotics, before making the necessary investment in and ultimate transition to such new manufacturing systems.
Although adopting new systems and strategies can feel quite risky, manufacturers need to understand that implementing robotic automation may be key to bridging the talent gap left in the wake of certain retiring labor losses. Furthermore, early adopters already have experienced great success with robots as can be seen by Procter and Gamble (P&G), an industry leader in incorporating collaborative robots into its large-scale consumer products manufacturing. Among the salutary benefits, P&G's CFO Jon Moeller explained that robots allow the company to upgrade and standardize manufacturing platforms to lower cost and facilitate faster innovation. Additionally, since incorporating the new robotic technologies, the company announced it will cut costs by an estimated $10 billion in just five years.
Safety is a paramount consideration for all manufacturers as no company wants to lose an employee to injury. Collaborative robots are intended to share workspaces with human workers, and although they are built to be a much safer partner than an industrial robot, “it’s a common misconception that collaborative robots are safe right out of the box, and there are still safety hazards present.” Industry standards and robotic equipment both continue to evolve to result in a safer workplace.
Manufacturers that are looking to engage robotics for efficiency and productivity support should ensure innovation in several safety areas including:
- Stopped state monitoring – the robot just stops when a human enters a scanned area but continues monitoring until the human leaves at which time it resumes working
- Speed and separation monitoring – slows down when a human comes near and may stop if the human gets too close
- Hand guiding – the user is in direct contact with the robot while he is guiding and training it
- Power and force limiting – safety is achieved through restricting the amount of force available in the system either through electrical means or mechanical compliance such as the use of elastic actuators
Paths to the Automated Future
Robotic automation is increasingly part of our world and as with any technological revolution, some companies will adapt faster than others. Although change can seem risky, decision-makers must understand that robotic automation is a process, not a single event. As technology in this area continues to advance, such automation can be more flexible, customizable and implemented at a speed and at a cost that works for each individual company’s needs.
Steve Everly is brand director of materials, packaging, and automation at UBM.