According to recent survey by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), 53.1 percent of manufacturers anticipate a change in their operations due to the current COVID19 pandemic. You may already be experiencing changes to your business as you adjust to the financial impact, worker health and safety protections, supply chain disruptions, or decreases in new orders. At the same time, shortages of specific products including medical devices and protective equipment and related supplies means some manufacturers have new opportunities to expand production or make new items, if only temporarily.
This current global pandemic is not the first time industry has had to react to powerful market forces and it won’t be the last. Natural disasters, tariffs and their impact on supply chains, and times of war all wreak havoc on employment and manufacturing seemingly overnight, and they have long-term consequences. The key for manufacturers of all sizes to understand is that the more flexible your operations, the more responsive you can be, and the better your chances of staying strong economically.
The Time is Right for Automation – No, Really!
It may seem counterintuitive at a time of global crisis, but one way to boost flexibility and responsiveness is by adding automation to your manufacturing processes. According to the Brookings Institution, “robots’ infiltration of the workforce doesn’t occur at a steady, gradual pace. Instead, automation happens in bursts, concentrated especially in bad times such as in the wake of economic shocks. By investing in automated equipment companies may be able to address labor shortages and costs, while maintaining or increasing production efficiencies.
This just might be the right time to take stock of your operations and production, paying close attention to bottlenecks or processes that consistently miss quotas. Or if your production is slowed down right now you have time to assess production and identify the missing pieces to taking on a new product or business opportunity. With thoughtful planning, automation can help you ramp up production, expand your manufacturing repertoire, and accomplish production goals with a changing workforce.
Ramping Up, Ramping Down: Adjusting Production to Changing Needs
Thanks to increasing flexibility, quick changeover, and simplified programming, automation can smooth out fluctuations in production. Some options include:
- Stand-alone work cells: For high volume tasks like welding, cutting, punching, or stamping, automated tool changeover and fixturing enables you to quickly switch between types of parts within a family to make more varieties of parts or more of a single part in one shift. Simply type in a code or scan a barcode to easily move tools and fixtures, then run the program for that particular part.
- Combined manual and automated processes: It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. Machine tending robots and machine-assisted tasks keeps workers involved for more skilled aspects of the job but gives machines the tedious or dangerous work.
- Machines optimized for redeployment: Compact, mobile, and quickly reprogrammed, cobots and other automation tools can be redeployed in different areas of production. Many are designed to easily swap out end-of-arm-tooling for fast changeover. Another option is a dedicated robot with cameras or sensors that can be moved around the production floor for visual verification and inspection on demand. Or, if you make a product that’s in short supply, you may be able to adjust equipment for new products with minimal time spent training employees on a new process.
- Built in options for bypassing as necessary: Take some machines offline (or move them to another work area) and reroute all parts through a single machine temporarily until it’s time to pick up speed again. Built-in flexibility makes it possible to adapt quickly to changes in volume without rearranging hardwired equipment or spending hours on programming.
Each of these options can affect staffing and scheduling because in many cases you’ll need fewer workers per shift. As production volume changes, the automation equipment can often absorb most of the changes in workload, without having to add or reduce the number of workers. For example, if critical processes are automated (or if you can redeploy equipment to meet increased need) you may be able to add or remove entire shifts with minimal changes to operator schedules.
It’s important to remember that as production speed changes, stations up and downstream are affected. For example, a robotic arm that increases palletizing speed might also necessitate faster stretch wrapping to keep up.
Expand Your Repertoire: Doing More with Flexible Automation
Automation makes it easier to take on “side gigs” like adding a new product or customer because it can adjust to different processes easily. Some examples of how to extend your capabilities include:
- Supporting larger dedicated cells with smaller cobots: Depending on payload and gripper requirements, cobots can increase run time by providing workarounds for material handling challenges in areas with existing automation. Add compact robots or other material handling equipment to stand-alone work cells to make it easier to load or unload components, as in this example.
- Accommodating packaging requirements for new products: Automated packaging options exist for palletizing, folding cartons, auto-boxing, pack-and-pack, and precision gluing systems that can accommodate variety of sizes and shapes as they come off the line.
- Boosting inspection speed: Cameras and sensors built into robotic arms allow for fast and objective inspection based on spec data stored in computer memory.
- Freeing up time to explore new products and processes: by automating your regular production, you may open up time for workers to manually work on smaller batches of a new project. Or, you may be able to adapt a portion of your equipment and staff to a new product, as this shop did recently.
Integrating several types of machines and conveyance from one process to the next can even be first steps toward unattended manufacturing and the ability to run production lines at off hours. This in turn could be a way to fill additional orders, expand into new market, or deal with staffing reductions. or increase current market share. Remote access software with status reporting and alerts, and sensors can even monitor and replenish consumables like coolant or oil during unattended operation.
Augmenting the Workforce: Adapting to Staffing Changes
There are many reasons a manufacturer could be operating with fewer workers than usual. Illness or injury, skills-gap shortages, recession, or even unusual circumstances like the current stay-at-home requirements all lead companies to reduce staff temporarily or permanently. Automation can help you cope with the changes, even when they’re not anticipated:
- Expand responsibilities: Automation equipment gives workers responsibility for a larger volume of work, and more complex tasks. When faced with more business opportunities than your employees can handle manually, or the need to ramp up production quickly, it’s a way of “removing impediments from what employees can do and expanding the amount of machining production each employee can oversee,” according to Modern Machine Shop. ”
- Target inefficiencies for improvement: Put automation where it will have the biggest payback. Even highly trained, experienced human workers are inconsistent in cycle time and output, simply because they’re human. Machines offer inherent repeatability and consistency at faster cycle times, so they almost always hit their quotas and meet specs. Their precision also means they use raw materials like sheet metal or pipe, and consumables like weld wire or glue very efficiently in the same quantity each time. Selectively integrating automation into the most inefficient processes can save on scrap and ensure you “squeeze” as much as possible out of the materials you have, especially when supply chains are lagging.
- Maintain production levels with machine-tending robots: Even if you don’t have a “lights out” style unattended production line, you may be able to run some equipment with a machine-tending robot for things like opening and closing hatches, pushing buttons, and loading or positioning components. In this way, the robot serves as the primary overseer, and a smaller number of workers can still monitor and troubleshoot overall production.
- Attract and retain workers: Because robots and other automation equipment makes some jobs less physically demanding, you may enable some workers to keep their jobs as they age and avoid being understaffed. And when it comes to filling open positions, job candidates who see they’ll be working with high-tech equipment may be more interested in your facility – it’s a good way to set yourself apart from the competition. Reducing tedious tasks through robotics introduces more intellectually stimulating work, which is often more appealing to new and existing workers alike.
Whether it’s a time of crisis or time to be more competitive, automation is a powerful tool to invest in. Depending on the circumstances, it may require a bit of a mindset shift to realize its full potential: automation isn’t just a supporting player in your production, it needs to be integrated strategically into processes to make them efficient and scalable in a tight timeframe.
“The idea is that agility is the key to stability … businesses that can’t evolve and change quickly will fall behind,” says this Business 2 Community article. At Force Design we agree – contact us to talk about what automation can do for you.