by John Bridgen, Senior Automation Engineer, Neff Automation

Growing your manufacturing business profitably with a declining pool of skilled employees is an increasing challenge that businesses in northwestern Pennsylvania are facing. As an example, executives at two area companies recently noted that they have openings in production, each needing over 40 employees, and have limited employee applications. When coupled with the rising demand for their products, the opportunity to capture the demand for this business and the profit have severe long-term consequences if left unmet. Fortunately, automation technology has advanced making it more accessible to implement successfully, even for resource-strapped organizations. A case study illustrating this uses a Universal Robot and Vectis Automation.

Customers receive a welding robot in a box that is operational in less than 48 hours with no specialized training beyond the included instruction manual. With an average purchase cost of $90,000 and an expected Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF) of >30,000 hours, that results in a welding resource for $3.00/hour. To protect your investment, the solution is offered with a 30-day money back guarantee.Often the struggle manufacturers face when implementing automation is they select the most challenging applications first, or attempt to over complicate the cell by adding unnecessary features. For companies looking to fill their voids with automation, a better approach is incremental automation. This concept is explored at length in the Robotiq book, Lean Robotics (https://robotiq.com/leanrobotics). Incremental automation is a winning approach that not only minimizes risk, it allows buy-in at the operator level. Operators who are not part of the automation process often view the implementation of automation as a threat and may then seek out ways to hinder the success of the implementation. When automation is approached in smaller pieces, the operators can take ownership of the automation not only helping them build on their individual skill sets, but also enabling them to seek out additional projects to implement to drive improvements.

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In most cases incremental automation positions robots working together beside human operators. A study completed by MIT with BMW indicates a robot working alongside an operator can reduce human idle time by as much as 85%. Additionally, using a robot in this collaborative way, the robot can often be used to complete tasks that serve as a method of pacing the production operation.

In the example of the Vectis Automation weld cell previously mentioned, instead of displacing the welder with a robot, it is possible that the welder would be empowered to take ownership of the robot and deploy and optimize it. With that experience under their belt, that employee is far more likely to explore other areas to apply such technology for further improving the company’s operational efficiencies. While clearly the goal of any business is to have a profit, if along the way of implementing your automation you can empower an employee to build and advance their skill set, that is certainly always good for the culture of the company.

Many view robotics as competition for jobs, as if the work is done by either a person OR a robot, but today’s manufacturers are embracing and seeing the benefits of people AND robots. When adopted and applied properly, automation and robotics helps companies to be more productive and more profitable in order to grow and ultimately creating additional employment opportunities. While the trend for on-shoring creates an opportunity for area manufacturers, the pressures of global competition skill exists and if demand is left un-filled, customers will seek out suppliers able to meet their price and lead-time needs. For area companies facing labor issues and increased product demand, the accessibility of automation technology offers hope with a low risk path to addressing these challenges with confidence.

Side Note: In support of raising the awareness of automation technology for manufacturing, NWIRC and NWPA-NTMA are hosting a 5-session webinar series starting on November 11th at 10:00am. The goal of the series will be to spend 35 minutes on key proven technologies allowing you to build a road map forward. While ultimately the success of any automation project is based on choosing the right products for the task and the right supplier to work with, the journey should begin with identifying the best place to start. As will be discussed in the program, the best place to start is often not the project with the quickest ROI, but rather the project with the lowest risk allowing you to build incrementally on the initial success. Find more info at www.nwirc.org/events.