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How cobot automation can help manufacturers create better workplaces and attract talent

For manufacturers, it’s hardly news that robots can boost productivity. But robots can also be a key asset for companies striving to create better workplaces for their employees – and can help businesses in their efforts to retain and attract talent. In fact, in an age of increasing labor scarcity and when younger generations need new reasons to enter manufacturing, the role of robots in creating better workplaces is pivotal.

One of those businesses is Volvo Cars. The well-known and trusted Swedish car company uses robots throughout their production, mainly large, traditional industrial robots that are gated and lift several tons at a time. Now they are starting to also introduce smaller collaborative robots working side-by-side with humans.

Here are three ways robotic automation can help create better workplaces – with all the benefits it brings for both employer and employee.

Production of VolvoVolvo Cars' manufacturing plantProduction of Volvo cars

1. It lets people do meaningful work

At its very core, automation can take care of the dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs that no one wants to – or should – do, freeing workers to do more stimulating tasks and develop into new roles. This is especially the case with collaborative robots (cobots), as they are designed to be integrated into existing workflows and work alongside humans.

Like Dan Lämkull, technical expert in ergonomics and research leader at Volvo Cars says: “If you hate it, automate it.” Working with strategy and innovation in Volvo Cars manufacturing engineering team with a special focus on ergonomics, Dan says Volvo has seen a notable transition among his colleagues where cobots have been implemented.

"We have to implement operations where employees are taken away from their normal tasks and shifted towards other roles, often related to service or maintenance of the robot. We know how advanced tasks the cobots can do, how precise and consistent they are, doing the very same thing again and again and not complaining. The cobot quickly evolves from being a competitor to an indispensable tool. It takes the bad jobs away, allowing humans to assume operator roles.”

2. It can help reduce injuries and create an age-inclusive workforce

The benefits of automation extend far beyond the reduction of manual work; it can also help make for a safer working environment that protects workers’ health long-term. Take manual palletizing, for example, workers typically tend to bend, lift and twist for hours on end which can cause long-term musculoskeletal disorders including back, neck and upper limb injuries.

This is a central motivation for automating at Volvo Cars, where cobots are used for in-plant logistics and in pre-assembly stations. Here human workers would sequence parts needed on the main line, e.g., brake discs and calipers, and put them into boxes, which is then transported to the assembly line. These parts are quite heavy, the job definitely takes a toll on the body. However, even if the parts are not heavy the high repetition and awkward body postures will still cause musculoskeletal disorders and personal suffering.

“These kinds of tasks are demanding ergonomically. Parts can get tangled, and some are not very easy to grasp. They weigh approximately 500g, up to one kilo, sometimes two kilos, but during a whole week, it easily becomes more than 20,000 kilos per worker. And that's not sustainable,” says Dan Lämkull.

But automating these tasks will pay off. “I don’t have hard data, but I know that within the areas where we have automated, sick leave and the injurious level have definitely decreased. There is a clear correlation between higher automation and less sick leave due to musculoskeletal disorders. The injuries disappear because we have automated,” says Dan Lämkull, stressing that safety in the automotive industry isn’t just about the drivers and passengers. “We have a safety culture in the company. Everything we are doing is basically about safety.”

Minimizing or removing this kind of strenuous activity that can lead to serious health consequences is also key in retaining tenured workers who have often had the same job type for many years. Adjusting the work environment to address age-related physical requirements can help all manufacturers create a more supportive atmosphere and amplify the input of senior workers.

3. It enhances the appeal of a career in manufacturing

One of the main challenges for manufacturers all over the world is the increasing difficulty in attracting labor – especially skilled labor. This is partially due to demographic changes, but also down to younger generations having a negative perception of the manufacturing industry. This often stems from misconceptions that jobs are unsafe, unfulfilling, and lacking in opportunities for professional development and career advancement.

In the past, many companies outsourced production, especially to Asia. But with wages having dramatically increased in many Asian countries, and with supply chain challenges in recent years caused by Covid and geopolitical uncertainty, this strategy seems outdated.

To attract younger talents, businesses must remember that each generation will have different expectations of work. For younger employees, job choices are often influenced by how clear a career path is. Cobot automation can offer this group a dynamic business environment, where technology and automation make jobs more modern, exciting, and intellectually stimulating.

Attracting and retaining employees

Attracting and retaining employees

For Volvo Cars, being able to attract and retain talented employees is also a major part of their journey towards a higher level of automation throughout their operations, Dan Lämkull explains.

“We have a philosophy that we shall be the most wanted employer, and we want to attract the most talented people. This means we have to offer interesting tasks and picking things from a box all day is not very interesting or sustainable. However, being a robot or surveillance operator, or programming, maintaining, and installing robots is much more attractive and interesting work. That's more of an engineering job. Then we can attract the most talented people. And then we also become a more wanted employer. This new technology is a facilitator for attracting younger and talented people and retaining them in the company.”

Universal Robots

We believe that collaborative robotic technology can be used to benefit all aspects of task-based businesses – no matter what their size.

We believe that the latest collaborative robot technology should be available to all businesses. The nominal investment cost is quickly recovered as our robotic arms have an average payback period of just six months.

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