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Will You Still Be in Business 10 Years From Now?
The answer may depend on your automation strategy.  

an opinion piece by Dan McClenathen, President, Advanced Machines, Inc.
(posted 02/16/2004)

Future labor shortage … a manufacturing dilemma
The economy is beginning to come back but will you be able to find enough people to staff your factories and machine lines in the future? Are you thinking about five to ten years from now?  If so, the picture is not very rosy.  By the year 2007, the big bubble of ‘‘Baby Boomers’‘ will begin to retire. ‘‘Baby Boomers’‘ comprise the largest demographic group in the U.S. today.

This problem is already beginning to raise its ugly head.  I am aware of some manufacturing companies in northeast Indiana that are suffering from such a labor shortage that they actually have picnics on the factory front lawn.  They invite anyone they can to come to the picnic.  After the people are finished eating, they are invited to tour the facility.  At the end of the tour, they are asked to complete an application.

Consider the fact that most of today’s younger people do not want to work in a factory.  They do not want to work on an assembly line or feed parts into a machine that entails getting their hands dirty.  They want to work in offices or on computers; much different from the previous generations who built this country into the industrial giant that it is today.
When considering a career choice, people external to manufacturing think of the bad factory working conditions.  Many of today’s factories may be brightly lit, clean and filled with a mix of digital manufacturing technology, but this message has not been communicated to the public.  Most parents, kids, and educators today think of manufacturing as dingy, dark, dangerous, and dead end.  

Politics … can the government help solve labor issues?
The economy of this country depends largely upon manufacturing right here in the good old USA.  Even our government has recognized that there is a future labor shortage.  They have removed the cap on how much a retiree can now earn and still collect their Social Security.  This was unheard of 10 years ago.  But, is that enough?  Can the government respond to a problem of needing more people to work in factories?  Will they grasp the seriousness of this problem?  A failing manufacturing industry will touch all people and all parts of our society.

After World War II, manufacturers were the main employers.  However, in the last few decades, they have suffered from overseas competition and a shortage of skilled workers. Manufacturing has become less attractive than it was in the past.  I have heard it said that manufacturing, as we know it today, is ‘‘one generation from extinction’‘.  Either we prepare for the future labor shortage or we will not be in business.

Some companies are thinking about going overseas to attract help.  Please consider the language barrier; communication is important.  Things can change very quickly on a shop floor.  Most ‘‘on the fly’‘ changes are handled verbally.  Those that have tried foreign hiring plans have not had much success.  They have spent a lot of money but have little to show for their efforts in the end. 

Advanced Machines has recently begun to integrate robots into machining cells for one of its customers that is bringing production back from Mexico.  It seems cheap labor comes with many business, quality, and logistical problems.  And, after one year, how much does a robot really cost?  Very little.

Where else should we be looking for solutions … think systems integrators.
We must take charge of our own destiny.  System integrators are the new white knights capable of saving our manufacturing base.  We are standing on the edge of a forced transition to a robot-manufacturing arena.  Any company that chooses to ignore the signs to heavily introduce robots into their plants to cover for the future labor shortage may go out of business.  Are you able to see the need for the future robot evolution and plan for it before the labor shortage becomes a crisis?

Robots do not go on vacation, take lunch hours, complain, get overtime pay, quit, need 401-K programs, health, life or disability insurance, unemployment compensation, social security, or present any of those human resource related issues.  The average robot costs as much as one person does for a year.  However, after the second year, the cost decreases dramatically.  Robots can run for many years with little maintenance. 

I am aware of a Tier One Automotive parts manufacturer that recently received an order to build parts because another supplier could not keep up with the demand that the manufacturer required.  It seems this other supplier built a new small plant to manufacture automotive parts but, when the factory was completed, not enough people could be found that were willing to work.  We designed and integrated a full line of machines and robots so our customer could build the parts without any operators on the line. People bring raw parts to the line and other people take finished parts, already packaged, from the line. 

Lights out manufacturing … what does it mean?
Machines do not need lights to manufacture parts like humans do.  ‘‘Lights out manufacturing’‘ is an old term that in the past had a lot of hype and questionable results.  Those that did a good job integrating this concept into their shops today swear by it.  Those that merely went through the motions will swear at it.

I have been a part of programs where a Fortune 500 company literally sectioned off its shop floor into quarter sections.  One section at a time was converted to ‘‘lights out manufacturing’‘.  There were approximately 320 employees on the floor before the integration to CNC machines and robots.  When completed, there were hundreds fewer employees required.  They planned well and executed well.

Conversely, I have also been a part of programs where the companies treated ‘‘lights out manufacturing’‘ more as the latest fad, i.e. everyone else is doing it so why don’t we try.   The results were poor and, of course, they blamed it on the concept.  ‘‘We tried it and it just doesn’t work’‘.

For the ‘‘lights out manufacturing’‘ practice to save us in the future, we must approach it with the goal of doing as much as possible without any labor.  Manbir Sodhi, a professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering at the University of Rhode Island, Kingston, claims economics, labor shortages, and improved technology will help drive ‘‘lights out manufacturing’‘ growth.

Today we have better technology and better skilled integrators to see that what we start can be done.  Some companies are starting by converting over one section of the plant, or one shift, to ‘‘lights out manufacturing’‘.  They know the future is coming but may not have the capital to totally build a new facility dedicated to ‘‘lights out manufacturing’‘.

Are robots right for you?
As with many business strategy decisions, this is a big decision that in the end must be made by you alone.  But in making that decision, consider the benefits of using robots.  Robots do not get bored or concerned about working conditions.  In fact, over time, robots can perform many tasks more efficiently than people.  Additionally, they do not get sick or need to rest.  Consider those tasks that are dangerous with too much heat or fumes from welding. While this environment may be hostile to humans, robots never complain.

Robots can, among other things

  • Assemble parts,
  • Handle dangerous or heavy materials,
  • Spray chemicals or paints,
  • Inspect parts,
  • Store finished parts, and
  • Cut or polish parts.

You dream it up and let an experienced integrator show you how it can be done with a robot.

Is integration right for you?
James B. Swartz wrote in The Hunter and the Hunted, ‘‘Our competitive environment changes rapidly.  If you want to survive, you have to stay on top of changes.  Otherwise, you will become the prey to your competitors.  Hunters continuously change and learn; anyone who doesn’t becomes the hunted and sooner or later will be devoured.’‘ 

In addition to the future labor shortage, let us also look at ‘‘Robot Return on Investment’‘ (ROI):  First of course you need the Capital Investment to have the integration in place and running then can consider:

  • Total Personnel Savings
  • Productivity increases in unit output
  • Ergonomic Savings including legal claims brought against you
  • Time savings of changeovers – manually, it can take hours whereas automatically, it can take minutes
  • Total productivity increases
  • Warranty savings i.e., less 8D type of work may be required to protect your customer

Integration has the potential to lower costs, improve quality and timing responsiveness, and tighten the supply chain in and out of your facility.

In selecting a system integrator, consider the following:

  1. What kind of relationship do you want?  This is really a partnership.
  2. Find a company that understands and has experience in your industry.
  3. Does their company understand the application you want?
  4. Let the integrator propose the solutions.  Then you choose which is best for you.
  5. Do they have the skills and resources needed to execute the project?
  6. Are they large or small enough to complete the project on time and efficiently?
  7. Check references.  How did they perform for others?
  8. How about technical support?  Will they be available after the project to help if any snags arise?
  9. Documentation is very important.
  10. Do they have simulation capabilities ?  Can they actually show how the integration design will work before they build it?

Machine vision
This is another advantage of integrating human to machine to machine to human systems. Vision systems are a major quality control tool.  Vision systems can inspect for:

  • Part location and orientation
  • Optical Character Recognition and verification
  • Surface defects
  • Plastic short fills
  • Bar code reading
  • Surface flatness
  • Discoloration
  • Precision Gauging

These systems can then export the gathered data to an Excel spreadsheet, enabling automatic Statistical Process Control (SPC).   Every step of a manufacturing process can be validated. 

In closing
Countries that have a strong manufacturing base prosper.  If we are to continue to be a leader in manufacturing, we must prepare for the shortage of good industrial employees when the ‘‘Baby Boomers’‘ begin to retire.  Advanced Machines, Inc. believes the best way to prepare for the future labor shortage is through new system integration methods.  Start today by contacting a system integrator company that knows which robotic improvements can help you stay in business 10 years from now.  And, remember to ask them to show you a total machine line simulation of how your line will actually function before it is built.


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