Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Automation Helps Combat the Labor Shortage
Automation offers more opportunities than ever before.

With 76 million baby boomers retiring within the next twenty years and only 46 million Generation Y youths set to enter the workforce during the same time period, the pending labor shortage is a huge topic of concern for both human resource departments and managers across the North American manufacturing industry today.  Additionally, in a survey done by the National Association of Manufacturers1, 90 percent of the respondents indicated a moderate to severe shortage of qualified skilled production employees. 


Within these numbers; however, lies an opportunity.  And that opportunity is automation!  By utilizing automation in your factory or plant, the need for skilled labor decreases significantly.  Also, by utilizing the recent advancements in robotic automation, companies are able to automate many more operations than in previous generations of robotics.


New Advancements


One of the most important advancements in robotic automation is the use of machine vision.  Machine vision utilizes a camera or multiple cameras to allow the automated system to “see”.  Although machine vision has been utilized in robotic applications for many years, recent advancements have made vision more applicable and more cost effective than ever before.


FANUC Robotics has been a major driver in the use of robot vision for many years.  FANUC Robotics’ latest release of iRVision™ has made the integration of vision into a robotic system easier, more cost effective and full of more features.  iRVision is a truly integrated vision system.  The vision camera(s) plug directly into the hardware of the robot, eliminating the need for an expensive computer and enclosure.  iRVision’s software is also entirely developed by FANUC Robotics, eliminating any finger-pointing that can occur when using a third-party vision system.


Giving the robotic system the ability to “see” makes the process more human-like and the difficulty in finding skilled labor easier to bear.  A vision system is able to “error proof” every part that is handled to ensure that it had been manufactured properly.  This “error proofing” feature allows manufacturers to place automated checks in the manufacturing process that can be corrected or eliminated before the product reaches the end of the process.  Some examples are:


·         Checking that all of the proper shapes have been cut out of a piece of sheet metal before it is formed.

·         Using a robot mounted camera to verify that the proper tooling is mounted on the machine before the process begins.

·         Using robot guided iRVision to identify and locate the parts before they are loaded into the machine.  (This allows the manufacturer to place many different part sizes in random locations in front of the robot)


All of these automated checks make the system more flexible to change and ensures that parts are properly manufactured every time.


High Reliability


Another major reason that robotics and automation can help solve the skilled labor shortage is the high reliability and efficiency of robotic systems today.  Most manufacturers realize that their factories are only making money if the machines are running.  However, many of those manufactures do not realize how much more their machines can run while using robotic automation.  Remember this, a robot never needs to take breaks or eat lunch.  A robot never calls in sick or demands a higher wage because it was offered a job at the fabricator down the street.  Also, since a robot is controlled by the outputs of the machine, the system instantly loads or unloads new parts without any delay.  The increased efficiency over manual operations can lead to increased machine utilizations by 30%-40%.  This increase is often overlooked when trying to justify an automated system.


In addition to the increased utilization of the machine, the robot itself will be one of the most reliable pieces of equipment in the facility.  FANUC Robots are rated to run well over eight years of 24/7 operation before the mean time between failure.  FANUC robots are also repeatable from ±0.02mm to ±0.3mm (±0.00079in to ±0.0118in) depending on the model.


These types of statistics give manufacturers the confidence they need in order to commit to change the way they think about skilled laborer operations.


Although no one is certain what the next decade will hold for the labor situation in the manufacturing industry, with these types of benefits, manufacturers can realistically look towards robotic automation in order to solve many more of their labor shortage problems than ever before.


12005 Skills Gap Report – A Survey of the American Manufacturing Workforce