Robots to the Rescue
Robotics could solve labor shortage, skills gap in manufacturing

By Brandon Anderegg

Oct. 12, 2018

 Acieta Vice President of Sales and Marketing Mark Sumner points out distinct features that differentiate the collaborative robot featured in the photo and industrial robots.
Brandon Anderegg/Freeman Staff

CITY OF PEWAUKEE — Automation hasn’t quite reached the level of near-sentient characters such as C3PO from “Star Wars” or Pixar’s WALL-E, but robots have played and continue to play an integral role in solving modern-day problems, such as the labor shortage and skills gap in manufacturing.

Over the next decade, nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs are likely to be needed and 2 million are expected to go unfilled due to the skills gap, according to Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute. While these numbers reflect a national trend, the same situation can be found in Waukesha County.

Acieta is a local robotics integrator that has opened a brand-new facility in the City of Pewaukee in July. Mark Sumner, who’s the company’s vice president of sales and marketing, said robotics is a solution for some manufacturers experiencing the effects of a shifting economy and changing labor force.

As baby boomers retire and millennials enter the workforce, the supply of available labor willing to do repetitive tasks has declined, Sumner said. And to complicate matters, younger generations are unwilling to choose manufacturing as a career path due to the stigma found in the baby boomer definition of a manufacturing job, he said.

But it’s also true that humans are becoming more expensive from a labor perspective, while companies are demanding more parts at the same cost, Sumner said.

Why robots?

It is Acieta’s philosophy that if it’s repetitive, dirty and unsafe, give that job to a robot. Sumner added that automation is a means to make manufacturing “sexy” and more attractive to younger generations. And though some may think automation leads to job loss by replacing humans with robots, on the contrary, Sumner believes jobs requiring a different set of skills will take their place.

“It’s not a tool to replace a person, it’s a tool to put that person in a different position to continue to grow,” Sumner said.

Rather than putting together components on an assembly line for a manufacturer, an employee working at a company with automation may be

responsible for robot operation or programming them to do certain tasks. As a result, automation can reduce turnover because technology can eliminate the repetitive nature of traditional manufacturing, Sumner said.

“If I can go and play with technology and run a robot every day, I’m a lot more motivated to do that,” Sumner said. “And that’s something that he or she can go home and be proud about.”

Automation future

In the U.S., eighty percent of manufacturers still do not use robots, but this number could be as low as 50 percent over the next decade, Sumner said. He admits automation isn’t a solution for all manufacturers and in some industries, it doesn’t make sense.

Still, data shows that robots are more efficient than humans, so why aren’t manufacturers switching more frequently? Some companies may not understand how robots would fit in the context of their production model and in essence, fear the unknown. For others, it’s a financial step they’re not ready to take.

But due to the competitive nature of manufacturing and direction automation has taken in recent years, avoiding automation could be a risk for some companies.

“The whole fear of not doing anything is going to come to a point where either you do something, or you become Blockbuster,” Sumner said.

Automation data

Over the next decade, nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will likely be needed, and 2 million are expected to go unfilled due to the skills gap.

Most automated machining cells will produce a 2-year payback if operated for two shifts, five days/week.

There may be an opportunity to operate an automated machining cell during a third shift without operator attendance.

Human vs. Machine productivity

Working .5/.25/.25 hr. breaks
Average cycle time/part: 60 seconds
Operator Efficiency: 60 percent Average
Daily Throughput: 250 units

Working 8 hours/shift: No Lunch/Breaks
Average cycle time/part: 80 seconds
Operator Efficiency: 95 percent Average
Daily Throughput: 340 units 450 more robot parts per week = 36 percent productivity increase

Source: Acieta