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Automation and the transformation of manufacturing

The term ‘lights out manufacturing’ refers to a manufacturing plant or factory that operates non-stop without the need for human beings to be physically present. Industry insiders coined this phrase recognising that robots to continue working around the clock, long after human workers typically clock out and the lights go out on the factory floor.

Emphasising just how significantly different the diminished needs of a robotic workforce are from a human one, Vice President Gary Zywiol of FANUC Robotics America described their facilities by saying, 'Not only is it lights out, we turn off the air conditioning and heat, too.'

Today, automation is gaining widespread acceptance in the United States. However, manufacturing companies must first have automation systems in place before taking advantage of this technology.

Creating a ‘Lights Out’ facility

Midwest Engineering Systems (MWES) is a company based in Wisconsin providing automation solutions and customised machine design for its customers. MWES has produced the required machinery to run a lights out manufacturing plant since 1991, and is well aware of the benefits of automation. MWES Senior Sales Engineer Peter Gratschmayr recently explained the appeal of lights out manufacturing through automation and its rising popularity.

'Some of the advantages to implementing lights-out manufacturing are reducing and stabilising labour costs to be reliably consistent. Throughput and quality also increase. Energy requirements for HVAC control systems and lights are reduced. Scrap rates and field failures are also reduced.'

Not every company that wants to implement lights out manufacturing is necessarily a good candidate. Before installing the necessary machinery for new customers, MWES evaluates the anticipated two-year return on investment (ROI) in relation to quality, labour, scrap, and a process called production-throughput predictability. If the project date for a manufacturing plant to reach a break-even ROI is greater than two years, MWES does not consider it a good candidate to implement automated systems.

Cost savings and the evolving role of manufacturing plant workers

Reducing the cost of labour has long been a key to remaining competitive and consistently growing profits. Company leaders increasingly embrace automation and so-called ‘Smart Manufacturing’ to achieve these goals.

The displacement of manufacturing jobs for actual people through the use of robotics has been a major concern of groups opposed to the shift towards robotic workers. However, while many manufacturing plants that have incorporated Smart Manufacturing over the last two decades certainly look different today, human workers have not disappeared altogether. As robots and automated machines appear in a growing number of facilities, many displaced manufacturing workers are taking on new roles rather than leaving the industry.

Today’s smart manufacturing facilities feature 'operators with higher technical skills who can make critical decisions independently and are generally more aware of managing business processes both in technological and organisational terms', reported Luigi De Bernardini of Autoware in a recent article on Automation World.

According to a 2015 article by Industry Week, the use of robots in manufacturing is expected to grow by 10 per cent annually through at least 2025. As demand goes up, the cost of owning and operating the robots goes down. For example, it costs $50,000 (£35,000) less to run a spot welder today than it did when plants first implemented automation.

This means the typical manufacturing plant can expect to save up to 33 per cent in overall labour costs. Put another way, it costs approximately $4 (£2.80) per hour to operate a robot for routine tasks while the average labourer earns $24 (£19.60) per hour plus benefits.

Placing robots in non-safe work environments

A robotic workforce also has the clear advantage when worker safety is a concern. When implementing Smart Manufacturing, the processes most suitable for automation due are typically ones with safety issues or ones requiring a fast pace that is difficult for human workers to sustain over long periods of time.

Toxic or unhealthy work environments due to high temperatures, dangerous fumes, and high payloads all make good candidates for automated machinery. From an economic perspective, automated machinery offers less downtime and risk exposure as injury or illness become non-factors in the workforce.

The future of manufacturing jobs

Between the reduction of energy costs, the around-the-clock operation, and the ability to safely work in high-risk environments, automation and robotic workers will only become more commonplace in the future of large-scale production facilities. This undoubtedly will reduce the percentage of the labour force in manufacturing, not unlike the decline of farming jobs in the 19th and 20th Century.

However, there will always be a role for human workers in manufacturing. Machinery always needs some level of maintenance and supervision in automated facilities. And with the increasing demand for personalisation in products, there is growing demand for smaller-scale manufacturing enabled by technology such as 3D printing. This developing market is one in which automation makes little sense and takes a backseat to craftsmanship.

How do you see the future of manufacturing unfolding as technology and automation evolve?

Andrew Armstrong, Managing Partner at KickStart Search Engine Marketing

Image Credit: Baloncici / 123RF Stock Photo