Robots in manufacturing: it’s a topic that meets with unbridled enthusiasm from some, and fear and unrest from others. While machine-assisted manufacturing is nothing new—automation has been around for decades, ever since Henry Ford used it in his state-of-the-art auto assembly line manufacturing facility—it’s never been leveraged to the extent that it is today. The Brookings Institution estimates that nearly 250,000 robots are in use today in the U.S., and the International Federation of Robotics estimates that by 2019, 1.4 million new ones will be installed in factories around the world.
And that’s where the fear comes in.
Automation has eliminated many manufacturing jobs, but does it signal the permanent demise of manufacturing, as some have suggested? Or is it a way to recoup past losses and even gain ground? One thing’s for sure: in what’s being called this country’s Fourth Industrial Revolution (or Manufacturing 4.0), robots are changing manufacturing as we know it.
Robots Align with Today’s Customer Demands
Though workers have feared the influence of automation for some time, the data shows that rather than decreasing the number of manufacturing jobs available, robots have actually created opportunities for manufacturers to address changing buyer behaviors, grow their businesses, and hire additional workers in the process.
Unlike the manufacturing operation of 20 years ago, today’s operations are being structured to align with the way customers are purchasing goods. With the advent of online retail, the hallmarks of which are speed and extensive customization opportunities, consumers and B2B customers are demanding products be made to order, designed, and delivered to their specific needs. This kind of flexibility and quick response time require sophisticated, software-controlled manufacturing that relies on both humans and robots, in collaboration, in order to offer the “turn-on-a-dime” agility needed to fill orders.
According to Forbes, the most agile, most cost-effective, and highest quality operations haven’t seen employee counts drop over the past two decades. One U.S. automaker producing its most customized models has increased its number of robots by more than 1,000 to hit production goals, yet the number of plant workers has only declined 8 percent over the same 10-year period (despite a drop in production of 100,000 units that resulted from the changeover to the new model). The key to maintaining human worker numbers is a high level of customization that requires robots to be reprogrammed to meet constantly evolving demands.
Robots Require Humans
All evidence shows that humans and robots can and should be working together; it’s unlikely that a facility could go “all robot,” and counterproductive to avoid any use of automation. While robots can do many tasks faster (and often more accurately) than humans, humans are required for their unique ability to analyze production issues, solve problems, and optimize processes and output. The two rely on one another to achieve the highest possible efficiency, and owners rely on both to deliver the speed, flexibility, efficiency, and connectivity that make it possible to satisfy today’s customers’ needs.
Robots also need humans to maintain them, program them and, to an extent, run them; in fact, much of the new job growth seen in manufacturing today is in these roles. While unskilled work is becoming largely the responsibility of non-humans, the skilled jobs for repairing and reconfiguring them are—and likely will always be—the job of humans.
Robots Help Manufacturers Stay Competitive
It’s no secret that manufacturers are being limited in part by an inability to fill vacant positions, leading them to solve the challenge by automating as much of their production process as possible. This, for some, is the only way to keep from offshoring production to maintain their competitiveness.
It’s true we’ve lost jobs to offshore competition. According to TechCrunch, nearly 5.6 million jobs have gone overseas just during the period 2000 to 2010. But at the same time, according to an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, U.S. manufacturing output has increased by nearly 40 percent.
Automation has the effect of both reducing the number of human jobs available and, at the same time, keeping jobs from going overseas. Rather than sending work overseas to lower their costs, plants like Adidas and Carrier have automated for greater efficiency and, as a result, eliminated the need to look overseas to get products produced. Greater production efficiency keeps these manufacturers and others like them from looking overseas to get their products produced—and keeps their workers, though in numbers smaller than decades ago, on the job.
Where Do We Go From Here?
As we see more and more manufacturing floors changing to incorporate robots, most understand the growing need to help train young men and women in both skilled and unskilled work. Many are taking on the responsibility themselves; others are partnering with local community colleges to get this new generation (and some “old-timers”) ready to contribute in this new human/robot collaboration. Without this push to train new people in manufacturing, whether or not robots make things more efficient won’t matter.
When it’s all said and done, the cost savings organizations see by incorporating robots will translate to more jobs in the U.S. It also means manufacturers can use that savings to invest in innovation—innovation that leads to new products, new markets, and new jobs.
Are you the right size for at least some amount of automation? What is the ROI on the equipment investment? How do you achieve human/robot collaboration? The manufacturing experts at Wipfli can help your discrete manufacturing operation understand the opportunities and put a practical plan in place that will help you leverage all that Manufacturing 4.0 has to offer—let’s start a conversation!