When the welder is missing

The long-predicted shortage of skilled workers is now a reality in Germany. And just like disrupted supply chains or rising costs, it’s challenging companies and the country’s huge export industries such as the automotive and machine

When the welder is missing
When the welder is missing

The long-predicted shortage of skilled workers is now a reality in Germany. And just like disrupted supply chains or rising costs, it’s challenging companies and the country’s huge export industries such as the automotive and machine industry. With this uncertainty lingering over the future, the main question is: How can companies bring production into stable waters? The answer to that is automation.

Industry is the engine of the German economy: six million people work directly in the manufacturing sector. An impressive figure – just like the 20 percent or 612 billion euros that industry contributed to overall gross value added in 2020.

But to continue this success, production companies in Germany must overcome a number of challenges.

These include global uncertainties with all their implications, such as slowing growth and unstable supply chains. The most important industrial sectors such as automotive and mechanical engineering, the chemical and pharmaceutical industries as well as the electronics sector are dependent on supplies from other countries making supply chain problems a challenge for output.

Personnel concerns weaken the industry

In addition to the current crises, however, an already foreseeable problem is now becoming increasingly urgent for companies: there is an increasing shortage of workers. And there is no relief in sight with demographic developments causing the number of people of working age to shrink. The baby boomer generation is gradually retiring – the generation with the highest birth rate, 1964, will reach the standard retirement age of 67 in 2031. Immigration and higher employment rates for women or older people can only to a limited extent compensate for the effects of demographic ageing.

The Skilled Workers Report 2021 from the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce shows the extent of the personnel shortage: While in 2020 29 percent of industrial companies still had problems filling vacancies, in 2021 it was 53 percent. Accordingly, companies expect negative effects due to the shortage of skilled workers. These include the additional burden on existing employees, rising labor costs and the fear that orders will have to be rejected or the supply reduced.

Welders are high on the list of skilled workers sought. If there is a lack of personnel here, this has serious consequences: Whether it is about manufacturing stainless steel tubes for the pharmaceutical industry or parts for automotive production and mechanical engineering, hardly any industrial sector can do without skilled welders

When the welder is missing
When the welder is missing

Counteracting with technology

Challenging times make it necessary to review working practices. Companies are increasingly investing in education and training and are promoting work/life balance to become more attractive as an employer. But the fundamental problem for Germany as an industrial nation remains - there are not enough workers. Companies will therefore have to rely more on technology and innovation to make their production more resilient.

Companies benefit from developments in the field of automation. One example is collaborative robots. Compared to conventional industrial robots, cobots are smaller, lighter and easier to install and they pay for themselves much faster due to the lower investment costs. Today, they can take on a wide range of tasks. More and more turnkey solutions are coming into play with which even complex applications can be easily implemented – tasks in the areas of welding, assembly, machine loading or packaging and palletizing, which are in demand throughout the industry, can now be taken over by cobots.

Whether corporate or family businesses, industrial companies gain the necessary flexibility to reliably process orders and cushion production peaks - while maintaining high quality. In addition, this opens up the possibility of increasing the vertical range of manufacture, i.e. bringing the production of supplier parts back into one's own company and thus improving the ability to deliver.

And statistics show that more and more companies are discovering this potential. According to Interact Analysis, the cobot industry is expected to grow to 2.2 billion US dollars worldwide by 2026. In order to make optimal use of the technology however, companies in Germany must invest more than before in digital training and further education of their employees so that the robot becomes a real colleague.

When the welder is missing
When the welder is missing

B&S Blech mit System: Cobots as welders

Best practice examples show how companies use cobots to secure their production in Germany, such as that of B&S Blech with System GmbH & Co, one of the leading service providers in the field of sheet metal processing. A strategic realignment of production resulted in more welding tasks, but the company from Lower Bavaria, which employs around 160 people, faced new challenges. "Although we increased our manual welding workstations, we quickly reached our limits, both in terms of space and personnel," says Managing Director Fabian Schremmer, describing the initial situation.

A new solution from long-standing partner TRUMPF came at the right time. The TruArc Weld 1000, an automated arc welding cell with a collaborative UR10e from Universal Robots and a welding source from Fronius, has met all the requirements for an automated welding solution. The investment was also manageable, and B&S was certain that the solution would provide reliable relief for the capacities at the nine manual welding stations. Today, the two cobots are used in two shifts and process components of up to 2m in length. Each new order is now first tested for its robot suitability. The decisive factor for this is the quantities, because the cobots are to take over repetitive series production in particular to relieve the employees.

Siemens: 70 cobots for production

A shortage of skilled workers, increasing cost pressure and an increasingly digital world: Like many other German production companies, Siemens' Gerätewerk Erlangen (GWE) has faced many challenges in recent years – and consistently relies on automation to solve them.

"When we discussed the first considerations for automating the plant in 2016, we only knew the classic industrial robots. And they cannot be operated economically for production here with small to medium quantities," explains Maximilian Metzner, Global Head of Autonomous Manufacturing Electronics at Siemens, looking back. An alternative had to be found, and the Siemens plant, where AC drives are manufactured, found them in the collaborative robots of Universal Robots. "They are compact, versatile and, above all, easy to use," says Metzner. "But the biggest plus is the flexibility we gain from the fact that the technology is intuitive to program and use."

Siemens now has around 70 collaborative robots from Universal Robots in action at the Erlangen plant

Conclusion: With cobots into the future

Like B&S Blech mit System or Siemens, more and more companies are now relying on cobot technology to avoid the shortage of workers – and are succeeding. Automation with cobots paves the way into the future for small and large companies. It enables them to produce more efficiently, accurately and flexibly. This, in turn, creates the basis for further development. However, it should not be forgotten that people are and will remain essential in production. They must therefore be prepared for new ways of working and qualified to deal with innovative technologies. Manufacturers, training companies and schools must work hand in hand here – then the chances are good to compensate for missing personnel, increase vertical integration and remain successful even in times of crisis

Facts on industrial automation in Germany

· Germany ranked 5 on global stock of operational robots in 2021 (Source: IFR World Robotics 2022)

· The industries with the highest volumes of industrial robots are the automotive industry (49%), metal industry (13%) and the plastic and chemical products industry (9%) (Source: IFR World Robotics 2022)

· The most popular applications for new industrial robots are handling operations (53%) and welding (12%) (Source: IFR World Robotics 2022)

· In the next 20 years, the potential workforce of people aged 15-64 in Germany will have diminished by 6.2 million (Source: UN World Population Prospects)

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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