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An estimated 2.4 million jobs could go unfilled in the US alone between 2018 and 2028, according to Deloitte. That labor and skills shortage is not limited to the US. It’s being seen across the world as the ‘Baby Boomer’ generation, born between 1946 and 1964, reaches retirement. Their departure from the workforce not only creates a job to fill, but also leaves behind a skills gap. Meanwhile, consumers are demanding more than ever from manufacturers, including real-time availability, better quality, and fair working conditions – at a lower cost.
This would be challenging enough for manufacturers, but these conditions have been exacerbated by a volatile and unpredictable global economy. The pandemic has worsened labor shortages in some sectors as the ongoing ‘Great Resignation’ sees many people rethinking their careers.
How can manufacturers meet these challenges and still run a profitable production line? By accelerating automated manufacturing processes. However, that doesn’t mean more big, expensive industrial robots. The new generation of collaborative robots (cobots) are changing the way people think about robots in manufacturing. Unlike traditional robotic manufacturing, cobots can be used for a range of tasks and don’t require a complex safety infrastructure.
Here are five ways today’s cobots enable manufacturers to stay competitive and unlock more value.
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Repetitive, mundane, and ergonomically challenging tasks can be tedious and dangerous for workers. That leads to injuries and resulting staff shortages as well as inconsistent quality. However, that also makes them perfect for cobots. In almost any kind of production environment, cobots can significantly increase productivity levels. And today’s cobots are more capable than ever. The Universal Robots UR16e cobot, for example, can lift as much as 16 kg, apply the ideal force-sensing required for sensitive applications such as screw and nut-driving, while easily and safely handling heavy-duty applications, including machine tending, heavy-part handling and palletizing.
Working alongside humans, cobots take on dull, repetitive tasks, reduce human error, and allow humans to be more productive by focusing on other, more valuable tasks. For example, when automotive components manufacturer Hyundae Induction Hardening Heat Treatment (HIHHT) was faced with increasing employee fatigue and errors due to repetitive tasks, the company installed two UR10 cobots. Its failure rate decreased from 0.03% to 0.01% and production efficiency increased by 31%. Automating repetitive processes also allowed HIHHT to hire two additional employees.
Of course, the goal of any business is to be as profitable as possible. With cobots on the job, manufacturers lower the cost of production at scale and, in turn, increase profitability. In fact, a 2019 study byUK-based research firm Smither Pira found that a 1% decrease in production cost delivers a 34% increase in profit. Humans working with cobots can reduce cycle times and ensure accuracy and consistency so a plant doesn’t experience costly unnecessary downtime. That means automated manufacturing processes can deliver the high-quality goods consumers demand at lower production costs.
At first, employees may be skeptical about robots in manufacturing, but the addition of cobots to the factory floor won’t – and shouldn’t – replace human workers. They are designed to work alongside humans, taking on the more monotonous, error-prone tasks, and positioning workers to handle tasks requiring more cognition, dexterity, and reason. When employees are free from dull and dangerous work, they can take on more rewarding work and their overall job satisfaction improves. In a 2019 report on the consumer-packaged goods industry, McKinsey found that extensive automation can ease recruitment and improve retention by creating new technical roles with better pay, opportunities, and working conditions.
As mentioned above, consumers are demanding higher quality goods at lower costs. Cobots play a big role in improving product quality by eliminating human error, ensuring consistency and accuracy, enhancing the ability to create more complex goods, and identifying errors along the way. They don’t get bored, tired, or distracted, so cobots can complete a shift with no change in speed or quality of work. Tool manufacturer RUPES, for example, made a bold commitment to “zero defects” in its products and turned to Universal Robots for a solution that would augment its excellent workforce, minimize wastage, and bring about immediate results. By implementing cobots, RUPES was able to decrease human errors or eliminate them entirely, as well as improve sustainability by reducing raw material waste. Ultimately, the organization achieved its commitment to “zero defects” thanks to robotic manufacturing.
Economic uncertainty and unpredictable consumer behavior make it hard for manufacturers to know what to produce, when, where and in what quantity. Cobots offer the flexibility to scale production up and down as demand requires and expand into new markets more quickly. They can perform any task from metal stamping and testing, to quality inspection and machine tending. The best cobots can even automate heavy-duty and multi-part material handling, without compromising on precision. A cobot palletizer, for example, can transform a manufacturing process. If necessary, a single cobot can be programmed and redeployed to multiple tasks. They are compact and light and can switch tasks without major disruption to floor space or existing cells.
We are well past the hype stage – cobots have been adding significant value across the factory for 10 years now. Today they are built to do more than ever. We’ve entered the stage where increased automated manufacturing processes are no longer a nice to have, but a necessity. Organizations that avoid making the investment in cobots are not only missing out on extra value, but they risk falling behind their competitors. For manufacturers wanting to survive and win in this highly competitive landscape, cobots are the answer.
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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.