How Industrial Robots Can Reduce Stress for Factory-based Employees

How Industrial Robots Can Reduce Stress for Factory-based Employees
How Industrial Robots Can Reduce Stress for Factory-based Employees

The manufacturing industry experienced the second-largest increase in resignation rates in 2021, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, second only to the leisure and hospitality industries. A major cause of these resignations? Workplace stress. Here, Claudia Jarrett, US country manager at EU Automation, the global supplier of quality automation components, examines how the latest digital technologies can help reduce stress in industrial workplaces.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ findings can be better understood in the context of the Great Resignation. Otherwise known as the Big Quit, the Great Resignation is an ongoing economic trend where, since 2021, employees have voluntarily resigned from the jobs en masse. There are various possible causes for this, including wage stagnation, rising costs of living, safety concerns and growing job dissatisfaction.
This especially applies in manufacturing. According to Bloomberg, survey data has found more than half of technology workers say they suffer from job burnout, “and those who suffer from burnout are twice more likely to quit their job than those who don’t.”
These issues go beyond mental health. According to a report by the American Psychological Association, Stress in America: Paying With Our Health, workplace stress costs the US economy more than 500 billion US dollars every year. The same report says that 550 million workdays are lost each day due to stress on the job. 
High staff turnover is undesirable for manufacturers, whose credibility and competitiveness rely on seasoned expertise, established processes and longstanding relationships. So, what’s changed, and how can manufacturers address these issues? The answers may lie in digitalization and Industry 4.0.

Stress reducers

Efficiency is the name of the game for manufacturers. 98 per cent of companies surveyed in PwC’s Digital Factories 2020: Shaping the Future of Manufacturing report said that increased efficiency in production was a top reason for expanding digital factories. 74 per cent cited the ability to react more quickly and flexibly to customers’ wishes. But what impact do faster-paced production environments have on the minds and bodies of workers? With the large production quotas, employees can often feel overwhelmed, which can result in excessive stress and, in some cases, burnout. 
Burnout is a state of emotional and physical exhaustion caused by constant exposure to unrelenting stress over an extended period. But, what causes burnout in manufacturing environments? One study by The International Journal of Health Services blames “job demands and stress reactions in repetitive and uneventful monotony at work” and suggests that, in such instances, workplace reforms are required.
One way to free humans from repetitive and monotonous tasks is through robots and the increased use of 2D and 3D vision systems. While “blind” robots―those without vision systems―can complete simple repetitive tasks, robots with machine vision can better react to their surroundings. 3D systems, in particular, can overcome some of the errors 2D-equipped robots encounter when executing physical tasks. Going forward, robots equipped with 3D vision systems have potential for reading barcodes and scanners, checking for defects, packaging items, checking the orientation of components and more.
Another stress reducer is that manufacturers are increasingly realizing the advantages of easy-to-use robots. Because they require less skill-intensive control due to intuitive human-machine interfaces (HMIs), human workers can instead focus their attentions on more important goals, like reaching key performance indicators (KPIs).

Closing the skills gap

Robots and automation can also help address another major factor behind the Great Resignation. As Bloomberg reports, the Big Quit is largely about a lack of opportunities for lower-income workers to progress up the career ladder. Automation can address this issue in two main ways.
First, while automation does tend to reduce the number of employees needed in an industrial environment, it can also increase the levels of skill required when freeing up workers to focus on more valuable jobs. However, to realise this potential, manufacturers must train and upskill their staff to get the most from the latest SCADA and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.
Second, while automation requires higher levels of skill from some workers, it can, conversely, reduce the levels of skill needed from others. In other words, rather than replacing humans, an automated future can create opportunities for employees of varying skill levels.

Safe from stress

Another common workplace stress in manufacturing is a hazardous work environment. Take the example of oil and gas, where CNN reports that 44 per cent of young adults aged 20-35 find a career in the sector unappealing because they think it is dangerous. Safety concerns might also be a key driver behind the Big Quit. To solve this, McKinsey & Company warns that “health and safety concerns continue to evolve, particularly because employees’ needs and expectations have changed. For example, employees with unvaccinated young children may feel unsafe at large in-person gatherings.”
Fortunately, automation hardware and software are shown to improve worker safety by keeping workers out of harm’s way. This has been the case since traditional six-axis robots were first deployed on production lines in the 1960s to remove the presence of workers from some aspects of the production line.
Robots can combine with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), allowing software algorithms to learn and develop while the equipment is in operation. As stated in PwC’s Digital Factories 2020 report, “Robots and other digital technologies will also make workers’ lives in the factory easier, safer and more efficient.”
Implementing technologies to reduce the strain put on employees is not only beneficial for workers, but also for the business. A better, more engaging work environment can increase productivity. According to a recent study by Manufacturing, engaged employees' productivity is 70 per cent higher than that of non-engaged workers. This study also found that engaged employees had better safety records, lower turnover rates and greater profitability.
The range of stressors behind the Big Quit may seem complex and varied. Nevertheless, digital technologies like robots can play a key role in making workers’ lives in the factory easier, safer and more efficient, while also minimizing the impact of the most common stressors in manufacturing and maximizing productivity.
To stay up to date on the latest developments in manufacturing, visit the EU Automation Knowledge Hub.

About The Author

Claudia Jarrett is the US country manager at EU Automation.

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