Before the pandemic, it was well known that several industries in the U.S. have been facing a skilled-labor shortage. According to Deloitte, the manufacturing industry was no exception, with estimates of 2.4 million unfilled positions by 2028.
The Road to Recovery
Around the world, shelter-in-place orders are beginning to lift, and companies will have to restart production without the benefit of a vaccine or treatment being available anytime in the foreseeable future. In response, leaders and medical professionals are recommending a phased approach that uses social distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in offices, retail stores, restaurants, and even on the factory floor.
In the reopening effort, companies are dealing with a lowered production capacity due to COVID-19 testing, staggered shifts, reduced floor staff, and the need to isolate processes to maintain social distancing protocols. How can the manufacturing industry rebuild supply chains to pre-pandemic levels with an even smaller pool of available labor?
Enter Collaborative Robots
Over the past two decades, to combat labor shortages, companies have started to introduce collaborative robots. Also known as cobots, this technology is useful for labor-intensive and repetitive jobs that might otherwise cause worker fatigue, which can contribute to high scrap and rework rates. Unlike the giant industrial robots designed to work autonomously in cages safely isolated from human contact, cobots are designed to work alongside human employees.
Are Cobots Safe to Work With?
Cobots must be designed following safety standards outlined in ISO 10218 and IOS/TS 15066. Cobot safety features include safety monitored stop, hand guiding, speed and separation monitoring, and power and force limiting. They are made safe with tech and software that senses when they have collided with a person or object, monitoring all aspects of the robot’s movements and immediately stops the robot when anything unexpected is detected.
What Cobots Can Accomplish
Typically constructed with lightweight material, cobots are designed for ease of use and mobility, with rounded edges and preset limits on speed and force. Cobots are usually used to tend machines such as CNC, injection molding, press brakes, or stamping presses. Other cobot applications are pick and place, packaging, finishing, and quality inspection. They provide a cost-effective solution to automate thousands of mundane, boring, and dangerous tasks formerly done by workers. With their efficiency and productivity, cobots could well bring manufacturing back onshore, at a lower cost point than the offshore equivalent.
Cobots Can Work “Hand” in Hand with Humans
Manufacturing often requires dozens of people to touch the same product on an assembly line. Collaborative robots can help alleviate those touchpoints and increase human productivity by allowing the operator to focus on quality inspection and other duties. This also allows workers and technicians to focus on more skilled tasks like setting up and running the machines. When operators share workstations with a cobot, it significantly reduces the number of physical (human) touchpoints necessary to move parts through the production process, which helps to follow social distancing protocols.
Keeping Assembly Line Workers Safe and Productive
The protection of workers returning to the factory floor is a priority, and their safety will be handled through the implementation of several recommended health and safety measures. By taking over repetitive tasks, cobots provide a solution that allows employees to work further apart while maintaining the production capacity. Large automated robotic systems require dedicated square footage, but cobots are generally small and mobile. Their flexible form factor allows them to move between tasks and workstations easily. Because of their programmable nature, cobots can fulfill multiple roles in the factory. Peripheral technology such as proximity sensors can also be connected to the cobot, alerting it to pick up parts, change position, or other movements.
Due to the devastating supply chain and labor disruptions of the pandemic, more companies are considering re-shoring or moving production closer to the end consumer. Rather than strictly replacing jobs, human-robot collaboration allows more types of manufacturing to be done at a lower cost with fewer workers. They also help the shift towards industry 4.0 by reducing barriers to entry for automation and robot implementation. The ability to manufacture an expansive catalog of components efficiently and competitively will accelerate onshore manufacturing capabilities and allow more businesses to serve the needs of diverse industries within the global supply chain.