Manufacturers are used to living between a rock and a hard place – and navigating the space between. Demand vs. supply. Consumer appetites for customized product and their expectations for ever-lowering costs. The list goes on and on. So the current tug-of-war over if, when, and where a recession will hit is not unchartered territory. For manufacturers, though, the uncertainty is particularly challenging, as the flexibility that allows operations to reflect the pace of the economy simply isn’t there.
The economy has been growing. Unemployment is down. Last year’s Christmas sales were better than they’ve been in a long time. All good and logical reasons for manufacturers to hire.
Recently though, there have been signs that instability is coming. The US stock market experienced extreme volatility as 2018 came to a close. The Federal Reserve raised interest rates and laid down some pretty clear language that more was to come. Consumer confidence fell. In the UK, a deal on Brexit that would allow British manufacturers to continue to do business with the EU seemed elusive at best. The Chinese government announced that growth in its economy has slowed. And the “R” word started to appear with more frequency. These are not signs that inspire confidence.
So, manufacturers once again find themselves in a place they know so well. The rock: the need to hire workers to keep ahead of demand. Compounding this challenge is that unemployment is low and it is very hard to find people with the skills needed to take a job in manufacturing and be ready to work on day one. The hard place: overwhelmingly, today’s automation is fixed, expensive, and able to perform only a single task.
As one supply chain executive of a global automotive firm shared recently, “In a downturn…it is about flexibility. All of the automation we have cost too much and it is too complicated to change what it does. What we need is flexible automation that can respond when and how we need it to.”
The Labor Relief Valve that Manufacturers Need
So what makes the most sense? Hire, hoping that if and when recession comes, it will be short-lived and you won’t have to lay folks off? Or try to invest in reconfiguring existing automation?
Nine collaborative robots deployed at thyssenkrupp Bilstein’s plant in Hamilton, Ohio improve and optimize the work environment by automating hard-to-staff tasks such as machine tending, assembly, and product inspection.
“A major impediment to using robots in the past was the security fencing required around the machine. The beautiful thing about cobots is you don’t need all that guarding." - CEO of Task Force Tips in Indiana, USA, Stewart McMillan (right)
A mobile fleet of Universal Robots now handles a wide range of tasks such as dispensing, assembly, quality inspection, harvesting of 3D printers, and packaging at EVCO Plastics in Wisconsin, USA.
Ending this conundrum is in large part why collaborative robots are the answer for today’s reality. Cobots give manufacturers the flexibility they need to thrive in good times and not-so-good times. Advances in robotic technology make it possible to put cobots to work
- at lower costs
- on more than a single task
- in the same amount of time, it takes to train a person – or even less
With collaborative robots, manufacturers can build the operations they need to compete and thrive regardless of the economic climate, where people work on strategic tasks and flexibility is part of the organizational DNA.
Share your thoughts on the role flexibility plays – or could play – in your operations. How would more flexibility help your organization navigate a recession – whenever it comes? Tweet me @jim_lawton.