- By Eric J. Halvorson
- November 11, 2021
- Digi-Key Electronics
From raw materials for plastics and semiconductor chips to household products such as toilet paper and hand sanitizer, one thing is abundantly clear: automated manufacturing is needed now.
One thing we learned from these difficulties is the importance of accelerating automation integration into manufacturing. Prior to COVID-19, it was understood that automation was the way of the future, but, aside from Bill Gates and perhaps a few Hollywood producers, many of us rarely considered the devastating impact a global pandemic might have on our supply chain and the ability to keep the world supplied with needed manufactured goods. Unfortunately, we now know the destructive consequences of a pandemic, but how will that knowledge influence our future?
From raw materials for plastics and semiconductor chips to household products such as toilet paper and hand sanitizer, one thing is abundantly clear: the need for automated manufacturing is now. The pandemic has forced many manufacturers around the globe to reconsider their timelines for phasing in automation. Due to labor shortages induced by COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing safety concerns, manufacturers cannot create the same output they did pre-COVID. Automation and the training to use it will allow manufacturers to improve efficiencies that enable greater production without additional labor.
Beyond the headache of supply chain issues, energy costs in Europe and North America are increasing rapidly, creating difficult choices for countries and companies alike. The United Kingdom, for example, despite its push to end all use of coal, recently purchased coal due to the inflated cost of gas. Many manufacturers are evaluating alternative energies such as wind and solar to power their plants, with some, such as Phoenix Contact, already supplementing energy needs in their factories with solar power. Google, Amazon, FedEx and Apple have all implemented their own plans to become carbon negative as early as 2030.
The supply chain issues we face today could potentially be reduced in the future by the reshoring of some manufacturing to the United States. While the U.S. continues to be a high cost labor market, manufacturers can reduce overhead by building smart factories capable of maximizing efficiency while maintaining the high level of quality that customers require. Goods made in the U.S. would not face the bottleneck we currently see at our ports causing store shelves to remain empty. Smart factories that rely on alternative energies such as wind and solar would have less impact on the environment and pull less energy from the grid as well.
The cost of doing business has certainly increased at an alarming rate over the past two years, and with no end in sight manufacturers will need to look to new ways to continue being viable in the coming years. While the pros and cons of reshoring will continue to be debated in the coming months, harnessing new technologies now in automation and energy throughout the manufacturing and transportation industries will improve efficiencies and lower overall costs. Initial expenditures to improve our factories and power grids will be significant, but the price of standing still is too high to contemplate.
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