Robots For Growing Manufacturers: When Innovation Goes Beyond Automation

Miranda LaBate

The show floor of Germany’s Hannover Messe, one of the world’s largest trade fairs featuring industrial technology, displayed a dizzying array of robots in nearly every booth, presentation, and aisle. From lightweight robots engaging in direct human-robot collaboration to palletizing robots handling tasks of all kinds, the possibilities for any robot-assisted production floor extend well beyond automation.

But what is, perhaps, more exciting is the opportunity that robotics presents: a democratized competitive landscape for manufacturers of all sizes. Small and midsize manufacturers are investing in robotics technology at a higher rate than their peers in other industries, according to the Oxford Economics study “The Transformation Imperative for Small and Midsize Manufacturers.” And this trend will become more pronounced over the next two years, as growing businesses indisputably close the adoption gap between themselves and their larger rivals.

By adding just a few robots at a time, smaller manufacturers are setting up a winning foundation for providing the individualized offerings and services customers expect. More importantly, they are fostering a workplace culture that enhances the talent and skill of every employee.

Why small and midsize businesses view robotics as the next big must-have

In many ways, small and midsize manufacturers deal with the same challenges that their larger rivals encounter. From procurement and supply chain to workforce management, concerns over efficiency and agility arise no matter if we’re talking about a million-dollar business or trillion-dollar enterprise. The only things that separate them are the load, scale, and level of risk at stake with every decision. (And yes, the smaller company always bears the brunt of the liability.)

While headlines sound the alarm on robots replacing humans on the shop floor, growing manufacturers are learning that this warning is unfounded as they overcome the industry’s most challenging issues by going beyond automation to support four critical advantages.

1. More jobs that are meaningful, safer, and highly lucrative

Bringing in robots to the manufacturing process doesn’t necessarily mean that employees will disappear. Quite the contrary. Instead, job titles and responsibilities need to be reevaluated and, most likely, elevated. By automating monotonous and potentially hazardous tasks and giving the information and skills required to get work done well, employees can be retrained to work alongside robotics and do their jobs better and safer.

2. Lower potential for human error created by lack of training and knowledge

Considering the flow of retired employees leaving the workforce and the influx of younger, less-experienced new hires arriving, anything can go wrong at any point of the assembly line or factory floor.

Through machine learning, robots can gradually learn how experienced employees build a product, make decisions, and detect defects. At this point, the robot is responsible for conducting one dedicated job without error – whether the factory is fulfilling individualized orders, creating small batches, or undergoing mass production.

3. Fewer disruptions from unintended broken processes and machines

Another benefit of sensor-embedded robots is the reduction in repairs. Monitoring performance and looking for operational anomalies and signs of misuse, providers can remote into the robots to troubleshoot potential issues, program new capabilities, and defend against malicious cyberattacks. Plus, a robotics engineer can be dispatched immediately to fix the machine onsite.

4. New cost models that lower working-capital spend

Robots embedded with sensors allow the supplier to monitor the output capacity – which opens up an entirely more affordable way to optimize working capital. Rather than making a one-time, hefty purchase and signing up for a monthly fee for on-call service, manufacturers can leverage a service-level agreement with the provider that allows usage-based billing without owning the actual robot.

Human and machine: A new era for growing manufacturers

Affordable, connected, intelligent, and adaptable robotics are opening the door to unprecedented opportunity for small and midsize manufacturers. However, even though accessing and implementing the technology may seem straightforward, automating everything is never the answer. Costs will gradually increase to uncontrollable levels, especially when one part of the process breaks and triggers a malfunction down the entire line.

To capture the full value of the opportunities presented by new robotic systems, businesses will always need employees to help ensure the operation runs at peak performance and adjusts for customer demand, market shift, resource volatility, and business strategy.

Read the Oxford Economics study, “The Transformation Imperative for Small and Midsize Manufacturers” to kick-start your digital strategy.

Plus, join us at SAPPHIRE NOW to see how the latest innovations designed for small and midsize businesses can help improve your operations, processes, products, and services. And while you’re there, check out the session “Accelerate Profitable Growth in a Digital Economy” to see how you can scale your manufacturing businesses with a lower total cost of ownership.

Miranda LaBate

About Miranda LaBate

iranda LaBate is an aspiring marketer with an affinity for technology, blogging, and social media. The 2018 graduate of Drexel University supports the Automotive Business Unit in creating excitement and awareness around disruptive technologies molding the future of the automotive industry. Connect with Miranda on Twitter or LinkedIn.