12 Jul 2024

Manufacturers looks to robotic automation to bridge the skills gap

Skills gap

Today manufacturing companies are facing more challenges than ever before, from rising energy prices to parts supply issues and more recently an increasing skills shortage. The figures are telling and are indicative of conditions across the globe. Smart Machines & Factories reports.

Several factors make attracting and retaining staff more difficult, including the rising cost of living and the need to offer attractive remuneration. Political changes have made it more difficult to recruit staff from abroad and the pandemic has encouraged people to adopt a new hybrid work lifestyle.

The retirement of skilled staff has exacerbated the situation. Manufacturing companies have been affected by the issue as their highly experienced engineers and technicians with years of knowledge are leaving causing a major problem.

Some 40% of manufacturers say 40% of their workforce is above 50 years old. With these skilled engineers retiring, manufacturers are not seeing the next generation of technically minded people stepping forward to replace them. Over two thirds of manufacturers say applicants lack technical skills, with not enough young people choosing to study STEM subjects, leading to a 20,000 annual shortfall of engineering graduates.

Suitable candidates are therefore in high demand, pushing up salaries even for relatively inexperienced staff. Ultimately these costs will need to be passed on the company’s customers, further increasing inflation.

The other challenge is to make a career in manufacturing attractive. Many people see it as dirty, dull and potentially dangerous, requiring them to lift heavy loads or come into contact with processes that produce pollution or operate at extreme temperatures.

Robotic automation is the way forward

One of the major routes out of the skills impasse is greater adoption of robotic automation. Automating parts of the production line to reduce health & safety risks takes away the dangerous and dirty jobs and assigns them to robots, making factory work more attractive.

Examples of applications where robots have been introduced across different industries show that workers invariably benefit through improved health and safety and working conditions. Robots taking over arduous tasks that require repetitive movements, heavy loads or those involving exposure to dust or debris enables employees to take on more rewarding tasks.

Robots allow companies to upskill their employees, with workers being assigned to higher level tasks, including robot supervision and programming, or to handle more interesting tasks in other areas. They can also be offered the chance to take on new roles such as machine learning engineer, algorithm engineer and data scientist. This can encourage people to see manufacturing and engineering as a rewarding career that uses advanced technology in a creative way to produce results.

Although some people will always see robots as a threat to their jobs, it’s important to realise that failing to find a way to carry out these jobs in a better, more cost-effective, and productive way can affect the ability of both companies and the wider economy to function. A continued shortage of workers could cause businesses serious losses, leading to the risk of wider unemployment as they either cease to operate or relocate to find new pools of labour.

Repetitive, dull jobs that require little attention can lead to errors. By contrast, robots can help improve product quality and consistency by capitalising on the high repeatability, high speed, and high load capacity that they offer. By using robots to do the jobs that people don’t want to do and assigning people to roles that make best use of their talents, companies can reduce the scope for human error and product recalls.

Increasing production output and flexibility are just two of the major benefits of using robots – other advantages include the ability to reduce operating and capital costs, such as saving space through using compact or ceiling-mounted robots. Inventory can also be cut, as manufacturers can use automation to produce products at a rate that more closely matches demand.

The productivity and flexibility improvements that robots can bring can also help companies to transform their performance, opening new possibilities for growth that can help to generate new jobs in areas from administration and sales through to production and logistics. By helping to reduce production overheads, robotic automation can also provide a justification for reshoring production operations that may have previously been outsourced to lower cost countries. This can create new employment opportunities and potentially shorten supply chains.

Working together

The fear of robots taking peoples’ jobs is reduced by developments in collaborative automation, allowing robots to work safely alongside people. This robotic automation solution proved to be a success following government guidance for companies to adhere to COVID-19 social distancing requirements. Thanks to the inherent safety of collaborative robots, businesses could continue to operate their production or distribution lines whilst minimising contamination risks.

The ability of collaborative robots is opening new opportunities for companies to make better use of the decision-making and problem-solving skills of its human workers. They can solve problems in, for example assembly tasks by sorting out ill-fitting or non-standard components, leaving cobots such as ABB’s YuMi to perform more basic and repetitive tasks on the assembly line such as pick and place movements, soldering and moving completed assemblies to an area for collection by the next process.

One company taking advantage of the versatility of cobots to help its human workforce is Swiss based Bischofszell Nahrungsmittel AG (BINA). The company provides packed salads for supermarkets and needs to apply labels to the containers. A tricky and monotonous process for people to perform, BINA instead uses a highly dexterous YuMi robot that can reliably label up to 20 bulk food containers in just one minute.

Breaking down barriers

Essentially, bringing in a robot is not about replacing people. Rather it is about augmenting your existing workforce and their skills. Robots equip human workers with the technology they need to do things faster and more efficiently, while protecting them from the hazards endemic to many industries.

Adding robots to the production environment is most successful when the whole team understands that robots will fill the gaps that can’t otherwise be filled.

Another factor is that developments in software are overcoming many of the skills barriers associated with using robots. They are easier than ever to program, operate and maintain, allowing operators to learn how to program and use them in just a few days.

With the ability to handle an expanding range of tasks from complex and customised manufacturing through to picking and packing, robotic automation is increasingly becoming the answer to the skills gap. Businesses looking for new ways to augment the performance of their existing workforces are taking note of their advantages and putting in place the automated foundations of their future manufacturing processes.

Company info: ABB Robotics UK