George Bernard Shaw’s phrase, “Progress is impossible without change,” still rings true today – as technology inherently does not stop changing in order to progress industry. From metal tools to motors and now to automation, humans continue to advance industry by developing greater levels of automation through robots.
While robotic automation is being used more frequently to complete dull, dirty and dangerous tasks throughout the manufacturing sector, it does not mean that career opportunities are vanishing. In fact, companies that seek to complement their current labor force via robotics and advanced technologies – instead of replacing workers – will be far more effective in boosting productivity and achieving competitive advantage.1
Just as “a rising tide lifts all boats,” manufacturers that stay the course and take strategic steps to build competitive edge will experience organizational success. Furthermore, a company’s ability to maintain growing output levels in the years to come will be dependent on the innovative approaches used to leverage digital technologies and robotic automation while redeploying workers to more value-added tasks.2 But what exactly does this added productivity mean for companies and how does it contribute to competitive advantage?
Manufacturers that have a keen understanding of the cost savings associated with robotic automation realize robot implementation is a logical next step to production efficiency. Not only do higher efficiency robots reduce manufacturing costs per part and improve margins, they also help manufacturers adapt to changing customer demands.
Based on established criteria, most value calculations today assume that one robot in a robotic system can do the work of three and a half workers, bolstering the case for robots on the factory floor. This is especially realistic for companies experiencing a severe welder and general labor shortage.
Historically, the prevailing thought has been that welding robots cannot handle the diversity of tasks required. But, advanced technologies capable of improving weld processes have changed this mentality. The combination of high-speed welding robots paired with enhanced laser sensing and tracking capabilities is proven to boost productivity while other advanced technologies serve to optimize gas usage, wire feed and torch functionality, ultimately saving money.
Welding robots provide a range of benefits from greater arc-on time to less production downtime, and the wide use of robotic arc welding for high-volume automotive production has provided unparalleled operational efficiency and part quality.
Other robotic arms add value to operations, as well. For example, robust material handling robots complete a broad range of tasks, allowing manufacturers to avoid the inconsistencies of a manual process. High-speed coating robots and their peripheral devices work together to provide tighter tolerances and steady consumable flow, reducing human error and product waste. No matter the application or combination of robots, however, factors such as part size, product cycle time, repeatability and accuracy must also be weighed.
While the successful implementation of a single robotic arm can make a significant difference, companies often find that one robot on its own, especially where welding is concerned, is not adequate to fulfill production needs or reach return on investment (ROI) by the designated payback goal.
Quality is optimized
Highly precise and repeatable, robots enable manufacturers to quickly produce consistent parts with no variation from day to day or welder to welder. This type of precision is especially important for suppliers that need to maintain high-level welds for safety-critical assemblies.
Most arc welding power source manufacturers offer built-in options on the power supply to monitor weld parameters, including a way to set limits for weld parameters based on actual results. Other power supply processes can provide advanced waveforms for specific materials to improve weld quality, reduce spatter and increase aesthetics.
Spot welding technologies can also have a significant impact on product quality. In recent years, the utilization of servo motors to actuate spot guns has become prevalent. Motor control via robot software easily allows the electrodes to be synchronized with robot motion while providing precise control of electrode clamping force for improved weld quality. Similarly, specialty torches and sensors help maintain consistency and weld quality on thick parts, offsets in parts, different shapes and more.
And, for other applications, like painting, robots make it easier to meet tight specifications and tolerances for requirements such as coating thickness. Overall, robots provide greater control over parts, a factor that is increasingly important to competitive edge in a market that grows more demanding by the day.
While automation of tasks completed by humans does have the perceived potential to displace workers, company leaders can ward off issues by taking prudent steps to avoid unnecessary unrest, raising productivity in the process.
Achieving operational success in this area centers around the concept of effective communication. Whether the reasons for robot installation are for increasing worker safety, dealing with labor shortage or moving workers to more engaging roles in the company, initially informing employees of the reasons for robot implementation will make workers feel more valued, increasing morale.
A key initiative for any robotic implementation process is to have the robot installed and operational in the least amount of time possible. To facilitate this, decision makers should engage human resources to create strategies for training and incentivizing workers to facilitate optimum productivity. To ensure the best possible ROI for a robot purchase, manufacturers should invest in employee education, sending any potential robot operators to the robot OEM’s regional training facility to provide workers with new skills in automation, programming and maintenance.
Furthermore, any workers that are displaced by automation can be redeployed to other departments in the company more in line with their specific skill sets, creating a more productive internal workforce. Extrovert employees could be moved to sales or technical support, and manual welders would make ideal quality inspectors or workcell champions – an employee fully dedicated to the programming and optimal utilization of the robotic workcell.
Overall, intentional communication and employee inclusion combined with an engaged human resources department primes companies for operational success.
When pricing out a robot, a key element for decision makers to consider is the potential financial gain the capital equipment can provide over the course of the robot’s life cycle. Well-maintained robots can run for 20-plus years. Once manufacturers achieve payback over the customary period of 18 to 24 months, they should experience several decades of financial gain, especially with the consistent productivity of higher margin products.
After deciding to implement robotic automation, manufacturers typically start with a single process or job that is easily repeatable. From there, they should continue to look for highly repeatable processes that can be automated. Some processes may need adaptation to be a good fit for automation, but once repeatability is established, the continued quality of their overall service and product offering is increased.
Not only are technologies today being designed to maximize ROI, they are also being made to empower the current workforce already in place. With more than 2 million manufacturing jobs needing to be filled within the next decade,3 it is imperative for manufacturers to engage and equip the talent available.
To withstand competitive pressures and customer demands, more businesses are rethinking their manufacturing strategies to gain flexibility in production processes. From the addition of non-traditional robot execution methods to the incorporation of intuitive teach pendants engineered for easy robot programming, a wealth of user-friendly, next-generation technologies are available to facilitate the efficient implementation of a robot system.
Ultra-compact, lightweight and portable robots that can be conveniently mounted close to workpieces and other machinery in existing lines or cells are helping companies save valuable floor space while facilitating small part processing. And, the use of collaborative robots – robots specifically designed to share a common working area with human workers – are helping manufacturers deal with the uptick in mass customization, engaging the current workforce and fostering growth.
More affordable and sophisticated robotic technology combined with the current trade climate has prompted some companies to take a second look at reshoring to reduce bottlenecks and optimize time-to-market goals. And with only half of manufacturers currently using some form of automation in their business,4 the time to leverage robots and advanced technologies is now. Whether a business is looking to implement robots for the first time or an established company is adding technology to handle production pitfalls and boost productivity, the options available to manufacturers are vast.
1. Tech Trend 2019: Beyond the Digital Frontier, Deloitte, 2019
2. 2019 Industrial Manufacturing Industry Outlook (My Take: Paul Wellener), Deloitte 2018
3. The Skills Gap in U.S. Manufacturing: 2015 and Beyond, The Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte, 2015
4. 2019 Industrial Manufacturing Industry Outlook (My Take: Paul Wellener), Deloitte 2018