Are High-Mix, Low-Volume Manufacturers Ready for Robots?

The high costs of manufacturing automation have long been prohibitive for HMLV manufacturers. Robots are changing that.

For years, factory automation has delivered the highest ROI margins for large, high-volume manufacturers. For a production plant churning out thousands of parts a day, even the most marginal improvements will have an outsized impact on the quality, output, and affordability of its products. For manufacturers who are able to automate an entire assembly line using a fixed system, this technology is a critical piece of their business operations.

On the other end of the supply chain spectrum lie high-mix, low-volume (HMLV) manufacturers. These are businesses with anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred employees, tighter profit margins, and a specific manufacturing niche than hasn’t easily accommodated automation over the past decades. Most HMLV manufacturers operate behind the scenes, filling production orders from much larger companies for small batch runs of custom parts. If they’re only producing a limited number of components, the gains provided by traditional automation don’t outweigh the large capital expense of purchasing high-tech equipment.

Robots are changing those calculations. Modern robots are light, flexible, easy to program, and highly versatile. Their affordability and multi-purpose uses make them perfect for HMLV applications, and slowly but inevitably, they are transforming the industry. Here are six reasons why HMLV manufacturers should invest in automated robotic manufacturing solutions.

1. Robots offer greater flexibility for task switching.

Traditional fixed manufacturing is an ideal solution for high volume production, but lower volume manufacturers might be performing multiple different low-volume runs in a day. Robots can easily handle a wide range of materials, can swap out different effectors during an assembly, and can be moved from one manufacturing station to another with ease.

2. Robots can be easily reprogrammed and redeployed for fast changeovers.

High volume automation relies on fine-tuned programming to optimize output, requiring specialist expertise. However, for low-volume manufacturers, the tradeoffs run in the other direction: it’s better to have an automation that is easy to program at the expense of optimization rather than one that is highly optimized but can only be programmed by an expert. Many modern robots fit this requirement. In fact, hand-guided teaching, the most user-friendly training method, let the operator move the robot arm into position and then sequence with the push of a button.

3. Automation allows for more customizability.

Modern consumers are increasingly demanding more customizations on their manufactured goods. The interest in being able to pick and choose components is driving more HMLV manufacturing, while also increasing the amount of variation in each order. With robots assisting production, however, HMLV manufacturers can keep up with demand, lowering the cost of customization. It’s likely this trend will feed itself, as cheaper customization will lead to more demand for customization, which will then lead to new innovative ways to produce customization more cost-effectively.

4. Automation can increase production quality.

One of the biggest problems in quality control for many years was that humans grow tired—especially when they are trying to keep an eye out for rare, random, and minor differences in production quality. Remaining vigilant is difficult, and it’s all too easy for a person to grow bored, get distracted, or simply be too tired to notice when something is off. Robots, however, don’t grow fatigued, and their vision sensors are accurate enough to detect even the most insignificant of errors. Gains in production quality mean improved client relations and reduced liability of a defective part making it to market.

5. Cobots can increase the productivity of human operators.

What’s better than a robot operating independently? A robot working in collaboration with a human operator. Robots that work with humans (often referred to as “cobots”) offer the best of both worlds: from the robots, precision, and fatigue-free repeatability, and from the humans, the ability to respond to variables without prior programming. Cobots become a human’s super assistant, while humans can fill in the gaps on tasks that would be cost-prohibitive to program.

6. Automation can mitigate the labor shortage for HMLV manufacturers.

Finally, many jobs in the manufacturing industry are going unfilled due to a lack of trained professionals. To fill this gap, HMLV manufacturers will need to rely on advanced robotics. Robots will be able to take over some jobs entirely, while those which can’t be fully automated can be handled faster with robots to assist. It’s a solution to the manufacturing skills gap that is arriving just in the nick of time.

The flexibility, affordability, and production quality of robots for HMLV manufacturers make their ROI indisputable.

While the capital expenditure may still daunt many HMLV manufacturers, the reality is that an investment in high-end robots will pay off faster rather than slower. With higher quality output, reduced worker fatigue, and the ability to adjust rapidly to last-minute production orders, robots are delivering the competitive advantage these manufacturers have been longing for.

At Eagle, our expertise in working with manufacturers of all sizes means we can work with HMLV manufacturers to find a solution that matches their production requirements. In fact, we’ve developed a universal base specifically for low volume manufacturers that is easy to position and dock, has interchangeable tooling plates that can be switched out by a single operator in only a few seconds, and high tech components to aid with even the most complex assembly.

If you’d like to learn more about how our manufacturing solutions might be the right fit for you, contact us today.


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Eagle Technologies, headquarters in Bridgman, MI

Eagle builds the machines that automate manufacturing. From high-tech robotics to advanced product testing capabilities, Eagle offers end-to-end manufacturing solutions for every industry.

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