robot (noun)From the English translation of the Czech word robotnik “forced worker”. Karel Čapek used the word “robot” in his 1920 play named Rossum’s Universal Robots, in which robots made from organic matter were indistinguishable from humans. Although they were, at first, happy to work for humans, they eventually revolted and wiped out the human race. For over a century, we have read books and watched films depicting robots as a threat—this negative image is deeply ingrained in our collective conscious.
So it’s not surprising that manufacturers have been slow to introduce robots (in some countries more than others)—particularly when the press writes headlines such as “Robots to replace up to 20 million factory jobs by 2030”. However, far from trying to wipe us out, in the modern factory, robots and humans are working together, and human workers are leaning on their robot colleagues to improve the manufacturing process. Here are seven reasons why now is the right time for Electronic Manufacturing Services (EMS) providers to invest in robotics.
1. Robots are now easier than ever to use
One of the first reasons manufacturers can be put off from investing in robotics is the expense and difficulty of implementing robots. However, the trend is now favouring low-cost, easy-to-set-up and install robotics. For example, some applications come pre-configured, and app stores contain programme routines for apps. Suppliers also often provide standard accessories, including grippers, sensors, and controllers.
The new generation of robots is far easier to use than the early iterations. For example, user interfaces now offer icon-driven programming and allow robots to be manually guided. Additionally, for easy implementation, robot suppliers join hardware packages and their software. Supplying the complete ecosystem adds much value by reducing user effort and the time to operation.
2. Robots lead to better human jobs and an up-skilled workforce
Historically there have been many health and safety considerations for factory workers operating in dangerous environments. Unfortunately, this is neither beneficial for them nor the manufacturing process, which was often hampered by accidents or trying to prevent accidents. It may seem counterintuitive, but robots taking over jobs leads to an increased number of people working in manufacturing as automated processes become more efficient.
The types of jobs being created are also often higher skilled and better paying. The challenge then becomes for manufacturers to upskill their employees, increase their knowledge, and teach them how to manage the robots under their control. This cooperation between humans and machines could ultimately lead to reduced average hours worked, a better quality of life for the workers, and better products and processes in the factories.
3. Robots increase flexibility
Robotics allow factory operations and processes to be incredibly flexible. Once robots have been programmed, they can be used for many different tasks. And in a world leaning towards higher levels of product customisation, this flexibility will become ever-more useful. Also, robots allow manufacturers to change designs more easily, which reduces costs for Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and helps EMS providers and OEMs develop long-term relationships.
4. Robots support digital automation
Supply chains and factory floors are increasingly reliant on data to make better decisions. Managers can analyse data collected from automated processes to make processes more efficient. Robots share this data automatically using AI, which allows more intelligent automation to be adopted in diverse manufacturing sectors.
Ultimately, investing in learning robots will make manufacturers more competitive. As a result, EMS providers that are slow on the uptake of these new technologies are likely to lose out in the future.
5. Robots improve ROI
Using robots on the factory floor offers manufacturers a positive return on their investment (ROI) by increasing their competitiveness in a global market with fierce competition. Robots can make affordable products that are of higher quality. These factors help improve the financial benefits for businesses that adopt robotic technologies.
Beyond product-related benefits, robots improve ROI in a number of ways. They can increase human productivity, reduce factory overheads, make processes more flexible, and optimise processes by reducing the amount of waste produced.
6. Robots help make local production more feasible
Recent catastrophes, including the war in Ukraine and Covid-19, have highlighted the fragility of supply chains; one weakness in an otherwise robust supply chain can halt the entire system. While the best possible supply chain method—offshoring, nearshoring, reshoring, bestshoring—is moot, disruptions have led many supply chain experts to see the need for products being made closer to the customer.
Today’s EMS providers understand the benefits of having sites in multiple geographies to better serve customers around the globe; however, this implies higher costs. The whole purpose of offshoring, which mainly began in the 1970s, was to cut costs by establishing factories in the developing world where labour is cheaper.
Manufacturers have been wary of moving their operations away from these cheaper geographies as they fear becoming less competitive and, ultimately, losing business. However, robots can help. Despite the high initial investment, robotics leads to a whole host of savings in the long term, including labour and space costs. As robots can fit into any space by being suspended from ceilings or stacked on shelf systems, manufacturers don’t need such large factories.
This means that operating a factory in a more expensive location—Europe, for example—is possible whilst remaining competitive. Supply chain problems can be reduced, and there are also sustainability benefits.
7. Robots increase production and production quality
Production cycles vary—Christmas is a high output time, for example. However, it is easier for engineers to remotely control a large number of robots to increase output and hit deadlines. This increased flexibility allows a more agile response to customer needs and can be achieved by programming robots to handle new products offline.
Not only can robots increase the level of production, but they can also significantly increase the quality of production. A higher percentage of products can be completed the first time around, and there is less wastage and breakages. As the product standard is higher, there are greater product yields.
There are, of course, downsides to investing in robots: a high initial investment, expertise can be scarce, and there are ongoing costs. However, we believe the benefits of using robotics in manufacturing far outweigh the negatives. EMS providers using robotics can be far more competitive, consistent, and resilient.
Robots allow manufacturers to focus on their human talent as they can operate in more expensive geographies and promote a higher-skilled workforce. Jobs involving the design, installation, operation, and maintenance of robots are highly-skilled and rewarding. Ultimately, using robotics in manufacturing makes the process more efficient for everyone in the chain: both OEMs and EMS providers benefit from increased efficiency and cost reductions, and the end customer gets a better product.