ROBOTS ARE NO LONGER something found only in sci-fi novels; they’re part of everyday life, and incorporating them into a manufacturing setting is no longer an option. In fact, manufacturers that don’t take advantage of the efficiency and cost savings they represent will find it difficult to remain competitive.
Robots are opening up opportunities to manufacturers of all sizes, first because they solve for looming labor shortages and, second, because they reduce production costs. Is the future, then, factories filled only with robots? The short answer is “no.”
As customization grows, so does the need for agile production workers
Robots will always need to be supported by humans and, in fact, cannot perform many critical functions humans are capable of. The most efficient factory floors today — and likely tomorrow — are partnerships of sorts, with robots working alongside humans. While many unskilled production jobs have disappeared (replaced by automated machines) the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that manufacturing employment is seeing a resurgence, with demand focused on skilled workers needed to support those machines.
Robots ensure the need for humans
Customers today have the expectation of nearly limitless customization opportunities, and as those expectations increase, manufacturers must become more flexible, with “smart” production methods that make one-offs, quick turns and short lead times possible.
Automation is the answer, but instead of leading to the demise of human workers, it actually places higher importance on non-routine aspects of human work.
According to McKinsey, 59 percent of all manufacturing activities could be to perform the remaining 41 percent.
Here’s a look at critical functions that can be filled only by skilled and nonskilled human workers:
Designers and engineers. As customization becomes the norm, designers and engineers will be even more critical to delivering on customer expectations: The more unique specifications to an order, the more extensive the CAD/CAM expertise required to develop and execute production plans.
Machinists and maintenance technicians. Businesses fulfilling custom orders must reconfigure manufacturing lines and processes almost continually, and this requires more automated equipment that must be set up, maintained and repaired.
Many machinists who thought they’d be replaced by robots have been redeployed to take on these tasks.
Not only are these skilled workers needed to set up new production runs and program the robots, but when a setback occurs — a material shortage, equipment breakdown, inspection, troubleshooting, etc. — a human must intervene. According to research by Sabine Pfeiffer of the Department of Sociology at the University of Hohenheim in Germany, automation increases the complexity and vulnerability of the overall system, because seemingly insignificant events can affect the whole process on a bigger scale.
At one highly automated car body production plant, Pfeiffer found that up to 30 human interventions per shift were needed to prevent major flaws in quality and productivity.
People capable of creative problem-solving. Robots are capable of a relatively low level of “thinking.” They’re programmed to respond to inputs, pixels and sensor readings, while humans are capable of higher-level thinking that allows us to understand concepts and perform reasoning. Where there isn’t enough data for robots to formulate a solution, humans are able to step in and offer a creative solution — and make decisions.
Innovators. Manufacturing, now more than ever, relies on the kind of innovative thinking that leads to the next breakthrough products. Humans can perceive, process, synthesize, project, reflect and create in ways that are out of reach of even the most sophisticated robots (at least today).
Manufacturers cannot be sustainable without new innovations and, in turn, cannot succeed without the insights and capabilities of humans.
Customer service reps. Finally, while we’ve all been prompted to “press 1 to check on your order,” there’s no substitute for a human helping a customer find an order, check availability, ask questions about a quote, track a missing package or apply a discount. Though some functions of the order-to-cash process are automated, customers with direct access to a human who can resolve issues will be even more important as customization increases.
Robots are within reach of most every manufacturer today, and can lead to greater productivity and reduced costs. Though some workers may be made obsolete in this scenario, others will be critical to operations.
Furthermore, some manufacturers have found that the efficiencies gained by implementing automation have helped them avoid sending production overseas. In these cases, having fewer workers on the floor is certainly better than none.
About the author:
Mark Stevens, Partner, Wipfli LLP Mark Stevens offers manufacturing clients the experience and skills he has developed through working more than 25 years in the industry. Today, he leads Wipfli LLP’s manufacturing and consulting practice that serves clients throughout the United States and Asia. For more manufacturing trends and insights, follow Mark at https://www.linkedin.com/in/markstevenswipfli.