Many manufacturers believe there are big hurdles to overcome when considering integrating automation and the use of robotics into their processes. While it may seem great to have a workforce that never needs a break and can pull a full 24-hour shift, most are hesitant to replace employees, and fear the high initial cost won't be easily recouped.
David Kush, CEO of Axis Robotics, an automation integration company in Orangevale, believes those perceptions can keep manufacturers from being successful in the long run. He often sees manufacturers consider using automation only for repetitive tasks that can be too difficult or boring for a human worker to do on a consistent basis.
"Taking the first step into a robotic solution can be very intimidating," explains Kush. "I've seen people in manufacturing making the same part for 30 years. When that repetitive task is automated, those same employees end up learning how to program, run the robot, and oversee the process from a different perspective. In the end, they become more valuable to the company because they know what to do if there's a breakdown."
Difficult work that has a greater potential for injury is another real factor when integrating automation. For Phillip Meilbeck, president of TransAutomation Technologies, automation for more dangerous tasks can actually save jobs and allow manufacturers to be more competitive within their marketplace.
"The robots we integrate have the purpose of doing heavy, boring, and repetitive tasks," says Meilbeck. "These are the tasks that are physically exhausting and can cause injury or be dangerous for a worker to do on a consistent basis. By integrating one of our robotic systems, that task can be completed safer and faster. This allows the company to be more efficient, increasing their competitiveness within the state and prevent them from moving or taking their manufacturing overseas."
For tasks where the work environment is difficult or can cause injury from long-term exposure, robotics and automation can offer another solution. One example is San Diego-based Ocean Aero, which has helped researchers with an unmanned, robotic vessel that can stay out at sea for a longer period of time than a person could. "We are augmenting and strengthening work that people do in areas such as research and defense," says CEO Eric Patten. "When I was in the Navy, I didn't spend more than 30 days out at sea at a time. With robotics, you can collect data for much longer periods, and it's fully automated."
While it seems reasonable that automation is a solution for high-risk and repetitive tasks, the initial costs are sometimes hard to swallow for many manufacturers. According to experts, the costs are going down, but there are additional savings that aren't as obvious.
Automation in key areas can offer a safer and more cost-effective work environment when it's implemented in the right way. Meilbeck at TransAutomation is quick to point out that automation and robotics can offer huge cost savings by reducing a company's exposure to workman's comp and insurance fraud. "It's important for manufacturers to assign a value to the task that can be automated," he says.
While there are many advantages, California's automation experts agree that not all tasks can or should be performed by a robot or by automation: Human workers can handle variability much more easily, and compensate for any problems that may arise.
There is a middle ground: collaborative robots, a.k.a cobots, operating in tandem with humans to offer the best of both worlds. "Cobot technology has lowered the barrier of entry into robotics down into the $40,000 range and allowed many small shops with highly repetitive tasks to integrate them into the manufacturing process," says Kush. "There's a strong market for robotics and as the price continues to come down, so will the barrier of entry for the many small businesses that can benefit from this technology."