Is robotics important to the future of manufacturing? Given the current and future talent gap in the sector, signs point to “Yes.”
As of August 2018, as reported by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, the U.S. had 508,000 jobs available in manufacturing. They called this the best jobs gain in the industry in over two decades.
However, this opportunity will soon start looking more like a potential crisis for employers. The report predicts 4.6 million jobs — a mix of new positions and exiting retirees — to fill between 2018 and 2028, with only 2.2 million of them “likely” to be successfully filled. The following is a look at six ways advanced robotics are already picking up the slack.
1. Robots eliminate unpopular work and reduce turnover
One of the challenges faced by Hitchiner Manufacturing Co. in Milford, N.H., was that newly hired skilled and semi-skilled machine operators often didn’t make it through their first day. Applying robots saved the company money — around $180,000 per year — and it took people out of the equation for repetitive manufacturing tasks, like placing metal parts in machines for processing or finishing.
Part of the savings Hitchiner enjoys comes from lower rates of employee turnover, which can be costly. In one study of manufacturing companies, 43% of respondents indicated their operations were sitting at 20% turnover per year or even higher. Industrial automation can help cut down on that churn and save jobs.
2. Robots make existing talent more useful
In an industry where skilled workers are both more valuable and scarcer than ever, companies need to find “force multipliers” for existing talent. Doing so helps lift employees into higher-paying and more compelling positions. This, in turn, improves employee engagement.
Waypoint Robotics Inc. is a good example of how robotics developers and suppliers can aid manufacturers with robots. The company recently moved from Merrimack, N.H., to a space three times larger in Nashua, N.H., to have space to meet demand.
“Businesses of all sizes are having trouble attracting and retaining talent,” said CEO Jason Walker. From collaborative robot arms to autonomous mobile robots, automation enables companies of all sizes to repurpose their existing workforce, which is already spread thin.
“I go from a shipping and receiving clerk to also being a robot wrangler,” said Walker, as he described new roles for employees. “I add a new and valuable skill to the company. … I have Industry 4.0 talents.”
Waypoint both exemplifies and serves lean manufacturing by doing as much as possible with as few resources as possible. In this case, the resource is talent.
3. Robots improve safety for human talent
Private industry in the U.S. reported 2.8 million non-fatal illnesses and injuries in 2017. Manufacturing alone contributed 115,500 incidents of days away from work in 2017, or around 93 cases for every 10,000 employees. The perception that working in a factory offers high risks for low rewards is one challenge for staff recruiting and retention.
In addition, people are more likely to be bored and make mistakes with certain tasks. “If a job is repetitive and boring, human workers tend to make a mistake, whereas robots can do these things the same way time after time,” said Frank Hearl, chief of staff at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Arla Foods in Götene, Sweden, identified a cheese-packing station as particularly likely to result in productivity-disrupting repetitive strain injuries. It used eliminated potential injuries from that process by using an ABB robot that performs as much work as two employees used to, in the same amount of time.
4. Drones can provide agility at every stage of production
Deloitte last year identified drone data coordinator as one of a handful of new positions opening up as robotics literally take off in manufacturing. Unmanned aerial vehicles can play a role in multiple stages of production:
- Drones can efficiently and safely locate raw materials out in the field by performing lower flyovers than planes.
- Drones can transport materials, tools, and other assets within manufacturing plants by using vertical space and keeping out from underfoot.
- Drones provide considerable opportunities in automated inventory management when combined with bar codes, QR codes or RFID tags.
The agility of drones, whether in the field or within a manufacturing facility, can take manufacturing by storm. For instance, a Spanish car manufacturer called SEAT uses drones to carry automotive parts between production and assembly plants.
This particular fetch-and-carry task once took humans an hour and a half or longer, but drones can do the same work in a quarter of an hour. It’s a perfect example of using robots to provide speed and agility while employees pivot to more cognitively demanding work.
5. Autonomous trucks keep parts moving
The American Trucking Association predicts the U.S. will see its truck driver shortage double in the next 10 years. Demand for freight services has softened slightly amid ongoing global trade tensions, but the talent crunch remains.
Automotive and technology companies are working quickly to solve or at least partially alleviate this problem. Locations throughout the U.S. are actively engaged in on-road testing for self-driving semi trucks.
Daimler’s and Torc Robotics’ on-road testing program in Virginia provides one example of such a collaboration, and Daimler has acquired Torc.
While some estimates predict that fully autonomous trucks could eliminate some 294,000 driving jobs, the American Trucking Association said the industry will fail to fill 160,000 trucking jobs in the coming decade.
The talent shortage in logistics would directly affect manufacturers. Trucking companies transport more than 70% of all manufactured goods in the U.S. Autonomous trucks are very much an extension of robotics in manufacturing.
6. Robots can improve accuracy and error rates
The manufacturing industry relies on precision and generally has a low tolerance for errors. For those reasons, Kay Manufacturing began leveraging collaborative robots at its facility in Calumet City, Ill.
Thanks to improvements in machine vision and pathfinding, cobots have improved awareness of their surroundings in comparison with previous-generation robotics. They’re also capable of carrying out highly detailed and accurate inspections.
Applying just one cobot to a parts inspection process helped Kay Manufacturing repurpose three employees at a time into better-paying roles. Critically, Kay says it hasn’t laid off a single worker since it began incorporating robotics back in 1996, and it bought Universal Robots’ 25,000th robot arm.
Robotics can bridge talent gap for multiple industries
Manufacturing isn’t the only critical sector experiencing a talent shortage. The health care sector is another. People currently employed in these industries might be worried about robots taking over their jobs, but the examples here show their livelihoods are probably safer than they realize.
As robotics spreads into new manufacturing applications, we’ll see new roles for employees emerge even as robots perform many existing functions faster, more safely, and more accurately.