The past year has been no easy feat for businesses, with an unpredictable global economy hitting manufacturers particularly hard. As we soon move into 2024, there are no signs of this relenting, with the sector recording it’s worst performance in the UK since the 1980s. Simultaneously, the manufacturing industry is battling 74,000 unfilled vacancies, creating a £6.5 billion economic shortfall which is hindering the ability of companies to fight back.
Increasing productivity will be a key focus in the pursuit of profitability for 2024. Accelerating adoption of automation within the manufacturing process offers a solution, with one study suggesting that automation has the potential to contribute $15 trillion USD to the global economy by 2030. However, many businesses at this time do not have the funds or resources to adopt large, expensive industrial robots.
Enter collaborative robots (cobots), lightweight robotic arms that can automate repetitive tasks usually requiring the skills and manpower of human workers. Compatible with traditional industrial robots commonly employed by manufacturers, cobots work alongside humans to offer a wide range of benefits, all underpinned by the ability to improve productivity, as well as assure staff safety, and improve worker wellbeing.
Reimagining production lines for 2024
Due to the nature of the industry, manufacturing workers often face so-called dull, dirty, dangerous jobs. For example, palletisation – the process of stacking, loading and securing goods onto pallets – has traditionally been a manual operation that requires staff to perform strenuous tasks repetitively. Long term, this can cause issues for employees such as musculoskeletal damage, as well as mental fatigue. As to the factory output, goods of inconsistent quality subsequently become more commonplace.
Working alongside humans, cobots can take on these undesirable tasks, preventing staff injuries while improving manufacturing quality as human error is reduced. With minimal human effort necessary to operate cobots, these autonomous colleagues can help mitigate the labour shortage issue that is currently leaving many manufacturers vulnerable. Cobots enable workers to be more productive as they focus on more valuable tasks that require more cognition, dexterity and reason, in turn unlocking further business value.
As employees take on more rewarding work, job satisfaction naturally improves. In a sector that faces labour gaps, this can go far in improving employee retention. Prospective workers who may have previously been drawn away from the manufacturing industry by the necessity of performing risky and monotonous tasks, may now see a different future ahead, where the prospect of using modern collaborative technologies excites and enthuses. Reducing turnover of employees and creating a stable pipeline of future talent also ensures manufacturers can not only maintain, but increase productivity, as another year of global economic volatility approaches.
Reducing gaps between competitors
With the current cost of living crisis projected to persist through 2024, consumer behaviour is becoming increasingly unpredictable. Cobots provide the flexibility to adapt to whatever circumstances manufacturers find themselves in, whether production must be scaled up or down, or an expansion into new markets is required. Those that cannot swiftly adapt, risk being left behind. Automation therefore becomes a necessity for manufacturers if they want to keep up with the competition.
Not only can cobots provide flexibility in scaling the size of production, but from palletisation and machine tending, to quality inspection, cobots can perform any task without a need for rest. If necessary, cobots can be programmed and redeployed to perform multiple tasks and can switch between these with ease. By eliminating potential pain points between different functions, cobots can slash factory downtime, improving productivity across the board.
With less human labour required to man machinery, the possibility of longer machine tending shifts is unlocked. This could mean the development of 24/7 factories, with downtime kept to a bare minimum. Manufacturers could see goods produced and out of the door faster than ever before, a colossal productivity boost to consider as 2024 approaches.
Challenging current misconceptions
Despite cobots being widely available to manufacturers of all sizes, these modern automation solutions have yet to be considered a possibility by many. Research shows that the biggest hurdles to implementing automation are capital cost and lack of internal knowledge and experience with the technology. However, on the cost issue, it’s been proven that cobots can achieve return on investment (ROI) in as little as 12 months.
A common myth is that cobots are difficult to implement or use. However, the technology is designed specifically with an approachable user interface, meaning employees do not require specialist expertise to operate or interact. Meanwhile, software designed for use alongside cobots, such as Universal Robots’ PolyScope, means that programming cobots to complete tasks becomes intuitive. Modern cobots – such as the UR20 – are lightweight and have a small footprint, eliminating common issues around a lack of factory floor space too.
Finally, the advent of AI and automation tools such as Chat-GPT has fuelled fears that robots may soon takeover human jobs. Manufacturers who fear backlash may be hesitant to begin deploying and reaping the benefits of collaborative automation. It is important to remember that cobots are designed to work alongside humans, not replace them. Using cobots on a factory floor for example, allows employees to work with robots, not like them. As manufacturers look to improve business resilience in 2024, welcoming cobots into the workforce can also facilitate massive productivity gains.
Forecasting for the year ahead
As manufacturers carefully consider budgets for 2024, automation and cobot technologies should be at the very top of the list. Deployment of these technologies is now essential for increasing productivity, quality and efficiency. Organisations that hesitate to invest today risk losing hard-gained momentum to more innovative competitors.
The future of manufacturing is here. And belongs to those who will innovate and automate.