Manufacturing Automation: Don’t Laugh at the Bear That’s About to Eat You

Manufacturing automation is changing the workplace and changing our jobs, and we can’t ignore it or pretend it’s not going to happen to our industry.

It happened before in the 1970s and ’80s when simple robotic arms began handling some of the tedious lifting and placing of heavier and unwieldy objects, like car doors and windshields, as well as the repetitive tasks that had to be done with precision thousands of times.

These days, additive manufacturing and 3D printing are changing the way some companies make or outsource their lowest-selling products; robots and automated machines are making it unnecessary to employ a large workforce; and monitoring equipment and predictive maintenance are helping machines stay productive longer.

All of these developments are increasing productivity while reducing the workforce, with robots replacing low-skilled, low-wage workers.

Yet, many manufacturing executives and workers are still ignoring the growth of automation and trying to operate on a 20th-century mindset. You may not believe that automation is coming, or you may think it’s just another fad that will quickly pass, but we’re seeing more and bigger changes on factory floors that show this to be untrue.

It’s always a bad idea to laugh at the bear that’s about to eat you, and that’s what manufacturers are doing when they dismiss automation out of hand.

According to a Brookings Institution report, “more than 25% of jobs in the US are experiencing high levels of disruption due to automation“.

It’s not only happening in the manufacturing industry, it’s happening in any industry handled by computers. Automation is all about the artificial intelligence process, and it has been the future for the last 20 or 30 years. Back then, robotics and AI were the domain of the very big companies, like GM, Ford, IBM, and Apple.

But while it was out of reach intellectually and financially for the mid-size companies, that’s no longer the case. Now smaller companies can afford automation technology, and AI is becoming widely available to even the smallest companies. All of this new technology is having an impact throughout the global manufacturing industry.

What are the Benefits of Manufacturing Automation?

Robots in a German factory palletizing bread. This is a good example of manufacturing automation.For one thing, manufacturing automation can actually make the workplace much safer. Before we at Robroy knocked down and rebuilt a factory that built fiberglass liners to go into oil field tubulars, associates would sometimes get injured trying to liners wound onto a mandrel that was up to 45 feet long — and could weigh up to 1,200 pounds — with two workers and a Rube Goldberg mechanical type of operation. There were all sorts of back injuries and muscle strains as a result.

But rather than adding more workers to handle the lifting, we bought some automated machinery that would move the mandrels for us as they were being manufactured. The end result is there were no more injuries as a result of lifting those very heavy mandrels.

Think of the machines that handle the lifting of heavy boxes. For example, think about how many packages FedEx handles that weigh more than 20 pounds. Some human being has to hoist that thing at some point in time. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you do that repeatedly for 8 to 9 hours a day, that’s going to take a toll. Eventually, your back is going to give out, or you’re going to get a shoulder or elbow injury, and you’re not going to be able to work.

Or how about making parts that are critical to your customers’ operations: those require absolute repeatability and reliability. You have to be able to churn them out without error or defect, and you can’t suffer a setback because your specialist is out sick or on a special training day that keeps them away from their station. Robotics can do this type of manufacturing more efficiently and effectively and can give you far better repeatability, which gives you far better value.

Other companies are looking at machines because they’re trying to compensate for the human condition: humans get fatigued and tired, and that becomes important over time. For example, at the beginning of a shift, an associate can produce 100 pieces per hour, but at the end, they’re only able to produce 60. Overall, the productivity is good, but a robot doesn’t fatigue, doesn’t get sick, or have a hangover.

For reasons like this and repeatability on mission-critical pieces, medium and smaller companies are looking at the affordability of robotics, and this is what’s going to change manufacturing. The barriers to entry are getting lower, making it easier for companies of any size to enter the manufacturing automation marketplace and find new efficiencies.

I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business including transitioning to manufacturing automation. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

Photo credit: KUKA Roboter GmbH (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 0)

Author: David Marshall
I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.