Collaborative Robots Rise to Meet Manufacturing Challenges in North America

For North American businesses of all types, especially those in the manufacturing sector, 2022 was anything but typical. Or boring. Or easy.

Collaborative Robots Rise to Meet Manufacturing Challenges in North America
Collaborative Robots Rise to Meet Manufacturing Challenges in North America

For North American businesses of all types, especially those in the manufacturing sector, 2022 was anything but typical. Or boring. Or easy. ‘Labor shortages’ and ‘Supply chain issues’ became go-to phrases that encapsulated the most significant challenges for industry. Challenges that are continuing well into 2023.

In a recent survey from National Association of Manufacturers, 75% of manufacturing companies listed that their biggest challenge is ‘attracting and retaining a quality workforce’. And when looking at the latest statistics, you understand why; The Bureau of Labor & Statistics estimates that there are around 644,000 open jobs in the manufacturing sector –almost 50% more than the pre-pandemic numbers. The national jobless rate has not been this low since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon in 1969.

Supply chain challenges is another struggle for manufacturers in the US and Canada. And although supply side issues have dominated the headlines, tremendous pressures have built up on the demand side too, meaning manufacturers are struggling to adapt their resources to rapidly changing product mixes and rising demand. On top of this comes inflation combined with rising interest rates, making borrowing more expensive.

Isn’t there any good news, you might ask? COVID is now a manageable scale pandemic, supply chain issues are improving monthly, and inflation has dropped by more than 50% from its peak.

On top of this, reshoring initiatives are gaining ground around North America as businesses and policy makers at both state and federal levels recognize the importance of having a strong domestic manufacturing sector.

In fact, some 62% of manufacturers have already started reshoring or near-shoring their production capacities, according to a report by Deloitte, based on a survey of 305 executives at transport and manufacturing firms, mostly in the U.S., with annual revenue of $500 million to more than $50 billion.

Case study from Montana, Go Fast Campers uses UR5s for machine tending.Case study from Colorado, showing injection molder AIM Processing's use of a mobile UR5.

Automation provides resilience

In short, despite the headwinds, the outlook for the manufacturing sector looks strong. With skilled labor more sought after than ice cream on a scorching summer day, and more companies reshoring to North America, , automation is now a key element of America’s manufacturing resilience.

Industrial robots can plug labor gaps and support reshoring efforts, however, traditional industrial automation has proven costly and complex for many applications, leaving companies of all sizes with tasks that need to be completed and no workers available to handle them.

In addition, traditional industrial automation is not well-suited to the complex product mix that is becoming increasingly typical of many manufacturers’ operations in North America. It takes too long to reconfigure traditional automation to handle high mix/low volume operations and to add new product lines. Agile manufacturers need automation that’s flexible enough to handle a wide range of tasks and products and is also quick and easy to deploy.

This is why collaborative robot (‘cobot’) solutions is now the fastest growing segment of industrial automation and why cobot technology is on the rise with more than 20% year-over-year growth forecasted through 2026. A development partially driven by North American industry’s urgent requirement for flexible, affordable automation.

Another testament to this is that The Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute -- a Manufacturing Innovation Institute funded by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and part of the Manufacturing USA network— counts reshoring and the development of flexible industrial automation systems among its most important goals. Much of the research funded by ARM uses cobots as part of the solution – a recognition on ARM’s part that manufacturers are increasingly looking to collaborative automation to address their current and future production concerns.

Cobots can of course not solve all the challenges manufacturers in North America are facing, and there will always be applications where the payload is simply too large or the reach requirements too much for a typical cobot to handle. But there is a very compelling case to be made – backed up by real-world successes – that cobots are a great fit for today’s changing, challenging manufacturing landscape.

Labor shortage
Bryan Bird Regional President for Universal Robots U.S. and Canada

Bryan Bird is Regional President for Universal Robots, responsible for the U.S. and Canada. Based in St. Louis, MO, Bird brings 20+ years of experience in industrial automation to Universal Robots, most recently as Vice President of Sales at TerraSource Global and Kollmorgen Corporation. Bird, who has a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University, has previously held roles at Danaher Motion and GE Fanuc. Bird has been with Universal Robots for three years.

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