The Role of Automation and Robotics in Manufacturing

The Role of Automation and Robotics in Manufacturing
The Role of Automation and Robotics in Manufacturing

Jay Douglass, COO of the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute, recently shared his insights on the role played by automation and robotics in the manufacturing industry today, as well as his future outlook for the industry.

Douglass spent his career working in the technology sector before founding the ARM Institute five years ago in 2017. As a nonprofit membership organization, the ARM Institute “funds projects designed to get robotics into manufacturing on a more prolific basis,” says Douglass.

These projects are aimed at making existing U.S. industries more competitive, restoring industries to the United States, and enticing new industries to operate in the country.

Read our recent Q&A with Douglass to learn how automation and robotics are transforming manufacturing. These answers have been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Q: From your point of view, what role would you say automation/robotics plays in the manufacturing industry today?

A: One of the biggest problems facing manufacturing right now is a workforce issue. There’s a skills gap and it’s tough to find trained workers, and even just workers in general. The U.S. Department of Labor just published a study that stated there were 762,000 open manufacturing jobs in the United States in December of 2021, so that’s a big problem.

Robots can help. Robots are not replacing people’s jobs, but they are replacing tasks within those jobs to make individuals more productive. Managers can’t hire workers, and that’s driving a lot of robot adoption in manufacturing plants right now. Robots may work slower, but they can also work 24/7 and don’t get hurt or go on vacation. Installing robots can ultimately prove more productive and allows human workers to do more value-added tasks.

That’s been one of the real key things that’s driving the adoption of robots and also helping the U.S. economy become more competitive. The two biggest industries in the United States for the adoption of robotics—the logistics industry and the automotive industry—have actually seen significant increases in employment over the last several years. That’s a key trend that’s important to watch.

Q: Keeping that trend in mind, how would you say the future of automation in manufacturing looks?

A: The future is going to involve increasing numbers of automation solutions. Everybody who manages, owns or operates a business has to constantly be improving product costs, schedule and quality. Everyone’s trying to improve, and one way to improve is to invest in increasing your ability to automate the process—bits and pieces of it. You have to do what you can in your process to replace the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs with a robot. Things that people don’t want to do or people aren’t very good at. Replace it with a machine that’s not going to get hurt or make mistakes because of fatigue. The future is going to look like more and more robots working alongside an existing, highly trained workforce. Jobs are evolving and workers need to be aware of that, and stay abreast of the trends and necessary skills.

Q: Are there any other positive impacts of automation that aren’t as apparent to the manufacturing industry?

A: One of the things that automation can do is help restore industries that used to manufacture products in the United States, but don’t anymore. Industries like textile and food preparation, which now come from overseas, particularly South Asia. Now that we can use robots to supplement our workforce, U.S. manufacturing is becoming more competitive and drawing these industries back. As we continue to increase automation in manufacturing, we can also produce new products here, such as furniture and electronics. We’ve never really made PCs or cell phones here, but we can learn those skill sets, we can learn what it takes to scale those operations, and eventually we can start doing that ourselves.

Q:  Any insight or advice for manufacturers looking to implement new and existing automation technologies to improve production processes?

A: I would say to talk to as many people as you can—particularly systems integrators, the robot manufacturers themselves, people at institutes, people at universities—to try to understand what’s available and how it could supplement what you do. How could it make you better; how could it improve your cost, quality and schedule metrics?

You also need to take a look at the ROI—any change to a manufacturing process tends to be expensive, so you have to look at that with a very careful eye. But talk to people, research, learn what’s available, talk to integrators, talk to robot suppliers, and then use that, along with your knowledge of the product, to see if there’s a way you can continue to improve your key metrics. But don’t just buy robots for the sake of buying robots. Make sure that you’re improving your product quality, your time to market, or the overall cost of the product—those are the metrics that matter.

Q: Any additional advice to give to professionals in the manufacturing industry looking to keep up with new trends and technologies?

A: The manufacturing industry is changing constantly. The technology moves forward at a quick pace. It’s very difficult to stay abreast. Just be curious is what I would say. Keep your eyes open, talk to lots of people, attend conferences, read magazines, join organizations. Do what you can to educate yourself and learn what’s happening at the forefront of manufacturing.

About The Author

Jessica Steeley is Digital Marketing Specialist at Smart Manufacturing Experience.

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