Businesses are turning to automation technology to solve a range of challenges posed by modern industry.
It’s no secret that increased factory automation is transforming every corner of the manufacturing industry. However, as more and more businesses turn to automation, headlines about this trend have not always been favorable. This is true of almost every major production change, from the invention of the printing press to the modern assembly line.
Any time an industry is disrupted by new technology, unease about the consequences this technology will have on the workforce and on modern life are understandable. Addressing these anxieties requires a closer look at the forces driving the change. And in the case of factory automation, understanding these forces offers an essential insight into the advantages increased automation offers the world.
Here are six major factors behind the push toward automation.
1. The skills gap.
One of the most common negative perceptions surrounding factory automation is that robots will replace human workers, leading to an employment crisis. This is half true. Automation does replace human workers, but it is taking over at a record pace because an employment crisis already exists—namely, a lack of skilled workers.
The skills gap in manufacturing means that many companies are struggling to keep up with production demand because they can’t find enough workers to occupy key positions. The jobs that are currently going empty pay well and offer stable benefits, but many workers don’t have the training to take them on. Many of these jobs involved programming and working with automated systems, meaning that while automation is displacing some jobs, it’s also creating new ones. In the meantime, advanced automated systems are necessary to fill the gap left by the labor shortage in manufacturing.
The skills gap in manufacturing exists in part because the most generation currently retiring from the workforce, the Baby Boomers, was especially large. Meanwhile, although they made their living in factory work, many of them encouraged their children to go to college in order to qualify for a white-collar career. This desire was in large part because they felt their factory work was often dirty, difficult, and dangerous, and they wanted better for their children.
However, automation is changing the work environment for those in the manufacturing industry. Robots and automated systems are taking over the strenuous, undesirable work formerly performed by human workers, thereby limiting the possibility for workplace accidents or injuries.
3. Quality control.
How often have we heard it said, in reference to the heavy demands of many assembly jobs, that “people are not robots?” This is, of course, perfectly true. People aren’t robots. People become tired and fatigued, leading to mistakes and errors. And even simple tasks can wear a person down, resulting in repetitive strain injuries.
People are best suited for atypical tasks that require problem-solving, executive decision-making, and social acumen. Automation is the best fit for tasks that are not only repetitive, but which can be fine-tuned to achieve consistent standards, no matter the production volume. Today’s automation solutions do just that, with additional tracking and validation tools to verify that each component and each assembly meets even the most rigorous standards.
4. Engineering requirements.
As manufacturing designs become more complex, so do the assembly processes required to put them all together. In many cases, these are steps that human operators simply couldn’t perform. Specific assemblies may require parts to be joined at a location or angle that a person can’t reach, or they may involve a microscopic bead of glue to be dispensed with precision onto a surface.
New technologies also play a factor. Additive manufacturing (3D printing) lets manufacturers explore new design concepts, while other Industry 4.0 technologies, such as IIoT, Big Data, and Augmented Reality give manufacturers new ways to track and monitor their production processes. While these technologies are not always requirements, the benefits they offer businesses are too big to ignore—and automation is the only way to take full advantage of them.
Finally, the most obvious reason more and more manufacturing businesses are turning to automation has to do with cost. This issue is more complex than “automation is cheaper.” After all, factory automation solutions can be costly to implement, especially if they require a full overhaul of the existing manufacturing system, and it can take years for the investment to begin paying off.
However, investments in factory automation have other cost benefits that are measured less directly. An automated system takes over the need to source workers, reducing delays and the costs associated with hiring and training. Safer systems mean fewer injured workers. And better quality control measures mean fewer redeemed warranties or large-scale product recalls.
And of course, while the newest technology often comes at a premium, as the technology around it improves, the costs associated with adopting it also balance out. Basic functions become cheaper, and the highest range offerings become more robust, delivering more bang for their buck.
Factory automation has become a necessity for businesses of all sizes if they wish to succeed in competitive modern industries.
The forces pushing factory automation forward affect workplaces across the manufacturing industry, from large OEMs to small batch producers. They’re making goods more affordable, driving up demand. And they’re becoming more accessible beyond just the largest corporations. In short, while factory automation is bringing widespread change, it’s also leading to widespread opportunity.
At Eagle, we’re proud to be one of the companies standing ready to serve manufacturers as they look for automated solutions to their manufacturing needs. If you would like to learn about our services, contact us today.
Eagle Technologies, headquarters in Bridgman, MI