Robots have long been a standard topic of conversation in manufacturing circles but recently they are turning up in the news, magazines and everywhere online. The topics range from capabilities, the future of robotics, everyday utility and the ever fearsome, robots taking our jobs.
Even more recently, we are seeing the frequency of these conversations increase as we’re dealing with the unprecedented situation that has come about as a result of the global pandemic (COVID-19) and its devastating effects on our businesses and economies. But what you don’t hear quite so often in the conversation is the question of “Why automate?”
Robots keep people safe
People are really good at thinking, anticipating and problem-solving. Where robots and automation excel is the dangerous, difficult, dirty and boring tasks that humans either cannot do (safety or accessibility) or don’t want to do. Robots can take on repetitive tasks that help mitigate repetitive strain injuries for people, thus reducing lost time. Also, robots allow for less human touchpoints and provide greater social distancing possibilities, meaning less opportunity for disease transmission and an overall increase in the health and safety of your staff.
Automation bridges the gap
One of the big challenges for manufacturers around North America is the aging of our workforce. Over the next 10 years, as our skilled workforce retires from manufacturing, replacing them will be a challenge. In the last decade, a market of un- and under-employed university-educated young adults has led to students re-thinking their career options and choosing trades and apprenticeships. Although we should see the results in a few years as they enter the workforce and gain experience, automation is helping us fill the gap in those skilled trade areas.
Where are robots used?
Robots are routinely used in almost every industry. Robots load machinery (called machine tending), welding, material handling, packaging, assembly and painting. They cut, trim, remove excess materials and more. Robots are used heavily in the automotive industry and the automotive supply chain but even more so, we are seeing increased demand from manufacturers in the general industries as they look to capitalize on the many benefits the automotive industry has been realizing for decades. Soon we will be hard-pressed to find a single industry untouched by robotics.
But what are the driving forces around the decision to automate?
Robots are one of the most flexible tools available to manufacturers and can provide a competitive advantage. They can be programmed, reprogrammed and located almost anywhere in a plant or redirected to another plant. They can have multiple end of arm tools to handle a wide variety of part types. Robots can give you a competitive advantage on quality, speed, cost and agility.
Return on investment:
In manufacturing, as in many industries, a thorough understanding of costs and implementing measures to controlling them are critical to being profitable. Automation helps companies be more productive and reduce costs by allowing production and process data to be easily collected and analyzed. Most automation is cost-justified within a 24-month time-frame.
Robots are a great investment:
Manufacturers have been installing robots for over 40 years, and the Robotics Industry Association estimates that there are approximately 250,000 robots in use in North America. Robots have been dropping in price for the last decade while consistently improving in capability, speed, maintenance and ease of use. Robot manufacturers are always innovating and introducing new models and technologies to drive down the cost of manufacturing.
Robots and automation are also good news for factories. When management decides to invest in a plant by installing robots, it’s a good indicator they are making an effort to improve efficiency and productivity and greater profitability. Rarely does a highly-automated factory get shut down or closed.
Robot accessories such as machine vision, innovative sensing, new and innovative end of arm tools and robot mobility are allowing robots to do almost anything; communicate, navigate, update and remain safe and secure. We are seeing robots perform more tasks than ever before from assembly, material handling to surgery, in every service and industry.
We are entering into a robotic golden age. Robotics are easy to program and are low cost with high performance. So many new robot manufacturers are excited to enter the market with innovative technologies. The new breed of collaborative robots, that are intrinsically safe, coming on-stream and the advent of autonomous (self-guiding/driving) robots, give manufacturers new and innovative ways to integrate and utilize these tools of production.
The future of robots is fascinating and evolving. The technology development that is emerging is keeping all manufacturing and engineering professionals on the edge of our seats.
Industry 4.0: the automated collection and recording of data that make analysis and evaluation smarter and more effective.
The Internet of Things: smart sensing, vision and sensors.
Artificial Intelligence: software that helps manufacturing tools, such as robots and machine vision, learn from each other, share information, optimize production and make smarter decisions.
Quality continues to be the big, overall automation motivator. Manufacturers, retailers and consumers demand quality manufacturing. They want unblemished, long-lasting products packaged perfectly. Quality is achieved with good parts and robust, repeatable processes of manufacture. Robots and automation are a fundamental key to achieving quality.
As you can see, the benefits of automation are many and those companies that were early adopters of robotic automation may have found themselves less exposed to some of the current volatile conditions affecting the industry and the economy at large. From lights-out manufacturing to the flexibility to change over their manufacturing to produce critical medical equipment, some would say that those who have robotic automation were better positioned and able to respond to the crisis more quickly and with fewer losses.
There are numerous tools available online to help you evaluate the ROI and/or total cost of ownership of a robotic system. Or let us help you. We can review your current processes and work with you on a solution that will help save you money, improve quality and increase the health and safety of your staff, and maybe even provide some additional long-term peace of mind that you are better prepared for the next unknown disruption that comes our way.