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As manufacturing requirements continue to increase, and reshoring and lack of personnel continue to challenge the manufacturing industry, robotics can help.

The pandemic has exacerbated this dynamic. The global demand for robotics and automation has never been greater, says John Tuohy, executive director, global accounts, FANUC America. During the pandemic, "Robots were bought and deployed at a faster rate than any time prior," he says. "Corporate America responded by deploying robots to clean planes, prepare food and even make surgical masks to meet societal needs. Robots to the rescue if you will."

Stefan Friedrich, marketing manager, New Scale Robotics, cites the industry’s labor shortage, "by far the largest challenge that I hear about on a daily or weekly basis from our customers. Every shop we visit has a hiring sign out front." The pandemic accelerated this as well.

As a result, Friedrich says he sees many manufacturers, especially small businesses, struggling to keep up with current production levels, often creating a quality bottleneck, or struggling to find enough staff to inspect the products they make. This has prompted many manufacturers to consider automation for the first time or fast-track their plans to automate production, he says.

How Robots Improve Quality

Robots can help to increase capacity and throughput, streamlining the work, especially compared to manual approaches, experts say.

"Many manufacturers recognize the poor gage repeatability and reproducibility errors inherent in handheld gages, and are motivated to reduce operator-to-operator variations," Friedrich says. "A robot effectively functions as a single operator, while automatically digitally recording the data to eliminate data entry errors."

A robot’s accuracy and repeatability can also help reduce scrap/waste, and its real-time digital data can drive real-time process improvements. Tuohy says robotic automation offers higher levels of quality compared to manual operations.

"When robots are introduced into a production setting, trained operators are then able to do higher level tasks while the robots do the heavy lifting, repetitive operations and other jobs that are not suitable for a person," he says.

Michael Bruns, president, Arnold Gauge Company Inc., agrees.

"In the past, it was common for manufacturers to sample, do a first article inspection, measure one part a shift, then accept the batch," he says. But as tolerances have gotten tighter over time — and since "the cost of a failure is significantly higher than before," he says, robots make frequent measurement easier, which improves operations, productivity, and quality.

Automation is now becoming more accessible to small- and medium-sized manufacturers, experts say, which enables "everyday employees" to automate repetitive processes through smartphones, while also working side by side with robots — often without any guarding or barriers between the employee and the robot, Friedrich says.

"We are seeing robots in many more applications, specifically service robots," Tuohy says. "These are robots that aid us in our daily lives, like robotic vacuums or lawn mowers. The trend in life is like the trends in manufacturing – using robots to perform the mundane tasks which allows people to use their cognitive skills in other areas."

QM 0623 Management Q-Span Workstation at Machine

Optipro’s OptiSonic grinding machines use diamond tool drills to produce precision optics. A Q-Span Workstation with collaborative robot placed near the machine can measure core thickness of each cylinder in process, flagging out-of-tolerance errors and allowing immediate remediation such as change of drills or feed rate.

Improving Robotics Management

With this in mind, how can senior management champion robotics?

Tuohy says that "the easy answer" is for senior management to approve funding for robotic projects. "As in any company, culture starts at the top," he says. "Senior leadership can embrace change and assure the workforce that a shift to robotics will help the company be healthier and more profitable, benefiting the entire organization from top to bottom."

Friedrich suggests approaching automation incrementally. "[This] helps you divide your big ‘all or nothing’ goal into smaller, more manageable projects and expenses, [which] reduces the risk of the project, while minimizing schedule and scope creep," he explains. Plus, every small project successfully completed helps build momentum within your organization, while giving you a positive return on those smaller investments, he adds.

Working on automation projects one step at a time, or "incremental automation," is key, especially if your team is just getting started with deploying robots, he explains.

Friedrich cites advice he got from another robotics expert: Joe Campbell, senior manager, strategic marketing and applications development at Universal Robots. "If you have a 10-step manufacturing process, you don’t have to automate all 10 steps to be successful," Friedrich quotes Campbell as saying. "Identify one process step worthy of automation. Implement it and start generating the ROI very quickly."

Bruns advocates for a top-down mindset shift. He encourages senior leaders to set the right tone when it comes to the role of robotics in the factory.

"Ensure workers that the goal of robots is not to replace labor," he says. It’s to do the dull, dangerous, dirty, and difficult work to free up workers to do higher quality work. Most customers are not looking to reduce labor; they are using automation to improve their quality."

QM 0623 Management Q-Span Gauging System 3x5in

A Q-Span Workstation automates manual gaging tasks using a robotic gripper/caliper tool and a variety of familiar gages including bore gages and LVDT height gages. “No-code programming” makes them easy for operators to learn and use.

Finding An Internal Champion

To ensure that robotics strategies are implemented well, leaders must involve the workers who are currently involved with quality and automation tasks as they set policies and goals, Bruns says.

Friedrich suggests designating one, or several, robot champions within the organization, enabling such staff to increase their responsibility and gain project management experience. This can also help them feel valued.

"That robot champion should be trained on how to use the robot and take ownership of the project internally," Friedrich says. "Send employees to be trained before you invest in automation. These classes usually only take two days and can really help you generate some great ideas on processes to automate."

Ultimately, a robot champion can help relay requirements to vendors and system integrators, manage a team to ensure budget and schedule targets, and can help teams repurpose the robot for future applications, troubleshoot problems internally or identify the next automation opportunity, Friedrich says.

"They can also calculate your payback and ROI on the cell, which are typically strong metrics of success for an automation cell by most management teams," he adds.

Tuohy also recommends a collaborative approach. "Create a positive company culture where employees are given the opportunity to learn how to manage the robots and automation vs. handling the dull, dirty and dangerous tasks," he says. He also recommends working with a qualified automation partner to better understand the improvements that robots provide to the bottom line.