Why Delaying Automation is a Mistake
In conversations with many mid-sized manufacturers, I have noticed a distinct dichotomy. Some are frustrated enough with labor shortages that they see robotics as the inevitable evolution of their manufacturing processes. Others are on the fence, perhaps fearful of the disruption that a changeover to new technology could cause. What is clear is this: automation will create a competitive advantage, and those who accept the challenge will prosper at the expense of those who do not.
Let's examine those assumptions. First, the assumption is that converting to new technology would cause a costly disruption. Who hasn't already faced and overcome disruption in the business? COVID-19, and the subsequent supply chain crisis, were as disruptive as it gets. Being prepared makes all the difference, and unlike COVID-19, you can prepare for the interruption of a changeover in technology. Run both processes side-by-side until the new technology is running smoothly. Work closely with your technology partner to manage the effort. Then, switch over.
Another assumption is that new technology is fraught with risks. If you're thinking automation is risky, bear in mind that robotics has been around for decades. Likewise, machine vision and autonomous systems are well-proven. What has people leery is artificial intelligence.
AI systems routinely make the news when they make mistakes, like the self-driving car getting into an accident. According to a Pew Research Center study, 44% of Americans believe that the widespread use of driverless passenger vehicles would be a bad idea for society. These are sensational stories, but the thousands of successful applications of AI don't often make headlines. In a recent study on 29,000 women patients, AI outperformed physicians in diagnosing breast cancers. Is AI software foolproof? Hardly, but neither was your cloud-based accounting software when you first installed it.
Some manufacturers assume their products are unique and ill-suited to automation. In past years, they would have been right. That’s changing rapidly, with the availability of autonomous systems that incorporate machine vision. High-mix and even one-off products can be assembled robotically if you have Computer-Aided Design (CAD) files for robots to work from. If someone assumes that their products aren’t amenable to automation, one of their competitors will likely prove them wrong fairly soon.
It would be foolish to discount the competitive advantage of automation. The shortage of manufacturing labor isn't going to go away. In fact, experts agree it is only going to get worse. The latest data from the US Chamber of Commerce shows that we have over 10 million job openings in the U.S., but only 5.7 million unemployed workers. With inflation and shortage will come higher labor costs. The best solution to escalating labor costs is to reduce your reliance on human workers. Even if you choose to stick with human labor, it's difficult to compete with a competitor whose facility runs 24/7 and has higher output.
Humans are naturally averse to change and the risks that come with it. However, change is inevitable, and those who are proactive can prosper at the expense of those who delay. How you understand and manage those risks can create a lasting competitive advantage if other companies in your industry are slow to adopt robotics in manufacturing.
Randy Friedlander, ABAGY
Robotic welding for high-mix production
Using ABAGY software with smart machine vision, you just need to load the part and set the welding parameters. Robots will do the rest. Just click & weld.