Alongside advancements in manufacturing support software, perhaps the most influential technology in manufacturing over the next decade will be automation. In implementing this effectively, there are many factors to consider. One of the important things to look for in terms of justifying automation is how many shifts a company is operating. Most people justify automation based on how many workers the automation is going to replace.
If a company operates on a single shift, it can be very difficult to justify automation if it’s looking for less than a two-year payback. Conversely, if looking for longer than two years, then this becomes less of an issue. Another element is whether or not existing machinery is operating as productively as possible, particularly if it is reliant on operator intervention for loading and unloading. Robots and automation can match the cycle of the machine and can consistently load and unload exactly when required.
Robots can be used for dirty, dangerous and arduous jobs which can address health and safety issues and can help to increase yield. Due to the skills shortages in many areas of manufacturing such as welding, there is an urgent need to utilise existing ones on jobs utilising their skills. This is where automation proves vital. The robots can take on the mundane work, while the skilled human side of the workforce can do the things that robots can’t do.
Man vs. machine?
Despite the common misconception, the introduction of automation and robots does not equate to a loss of jobs. While automation does generally directly replace some roles, it is equally as likely that it creates jobs in other areas. These are not often directly linked to the production process, but more highly skilled roles and therefore better paid for individuals.
The International Federation of Robotics completed a study last year analysing the effect of robot use on jobs and concluded that the introduction of robots into a workplace creates two new jobs for every robot introduced. The study also concluded companies that improve their competitiveness, through automation ultimately grow because they get more business and increase the workforce.
Getting it right
In the automation industry, there is a consensus of three factors manufacturing businesses must get right in order to maintain a competitive edge. These are:
Product and process innovation
Effective organisation and utilisation of lean techniques
Giving the workers the right equipment to do the job with investment in capital equipment
The UK-robotics relationship
While the increase of automation in the UK has been sluggish in comparison to other EU countries, at 51 robots per 10,000 employees – seven below the global average - as opposed to 127 in Germany. This places the UK at 19th globally. Although the industry enjoyed a relatively strong 2012, with the total figure amassing over 4,000 robots sold.
However, the lion’s share has been taken up by the automotive and automotive component orders, contributing 85% of this figure in the first quarter and 89% of the sales in the second. This trend appears to be continuing, at least in the short term, but in most other sectors robot growth remains sluggish. With the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills pinpointing UK export output as a key factor in addressing the UK’s budget deficit, the way to do this is by making UK manufacturing as efficient as possible through automation.
Further afield there has been a step change in China, a country with limited automation due to its access to a large and inexpensive workforce. It has begun to embrace automation technology as a means of combatting increased labour costs, a move which has seen the country implementing robots faster than anybody else.
Last year, Foxconn – assembler of Apple products – said by 2014 it would employ a million robots. While this may be unrealistic as it would mean employing as many robots as are currently operating in the world today, the Chinese desire for innovation through automation is clear.
With the UK currently competing with the Chinese and other emerging markets on the basis that it achieves better quality in its goods and products, the emergence of automation will bridge this gap. In a rather alarming scenario, the UK could effectively be unable to compete, due to already being usurped in labour costs. But by embracing automation today, manufacturing’s tomorrow will look a lot brighter.