Collaborative robots used to fill human labor gap

Tennplasco, a plastic injection molding company based in Lafayette, Tenn., used collaborative robots on their assembly line to help fill their labor shortage, which remains a problem for manufacturers.
By Freddie Roberts, Vinelake September 17, 2017

Sawyer, a collaborative robot, was used by Tennplasco, a plastic injection molding company, on their assembly line to help fill their labor shortage. Courtesy: Vinelake/Rethink RoboticsThe fear that human workers will be uprooted and displaced by machines seems to dominate most conversations around robotics today—but little time is spent on the fact that many manufacturers find it hard to recruit and retain the human personnel that they require.

Tennplasco, a plastic injection molding company based in Lafayette, Tenn., is a case in point: a shortage of workers with the skills to operate its machinery had left it struggling to operate. In order to keep things ticking along, Tennplasco turned its attention to robotics as a potential replacement for human workers, finally settling on a collaborative robot (or "cobot") from Rethink Robotics.

"Like many other manufacturers out there, we have been really struggling to get workers in our factory, especially on the off shifts," said Danny Rose, the company’s general manager. "The truth is, there are not a lot of people in our area looking for injection molding jobs, and if we don’t have people showing up to work, we can’t operate."

Not only was the company’s Lafayette plant in Tennessee unable to operate at full capacity without a full workforce, but time and money was being squandered on efforts to recruit what Rose calls "non-existent labor."

Instead, the collaborative robot is being used on the assembly line, helping to assemble and inspect automotive parts. Supposedly, the robot was easy to deploy and employees required minimal training to understand how best to work alongside it. This keeps the company from having to worry about whether the shift will be staffed. 

While many workers are worried about being replaced by robots, it seems that many manufacturers the world over are worried about how to tackle human labor shortages. Indeed, the consultancy company Deloitte recently predicted a shortfall of two million factory employees by 2025.

"For small- to mid-size manufacturers, selling the CFO on the cost of deploying automation can be a challenge," he said. Because the company was willing to take the chance, Rose said the company reached their return on investment (ROI) in less than four months. 

"Our customers, especially those in the automotive industry, trust us to support their businesses and meet their changing needs, but to do this, we need both workers and the technology to be innovative and nimble."

Changing needs of the modern factory

Despite the changing needs of the modern factory, it appears that robots and the use of robotics is unevenly spread by geography. In the United States, according to a report by the Brookings Institute, "Are congregating densely in some places but are hardly found in others."

The report states that robots are predominantly found in states where the auto industry is strong. The Midwest and upper Southern states, for example, currently employ half of all industrial robots used in the US.Michigan accounts for nearly 28,000 robots, 12% of the nation’s total, Ohio’s robot population totals 20,400 or 8.7%, while Indiana constitutes 19,400 or 8.3 percent, followed closely by Tennessee. By contrast, just 13% of industrial robots can be found in the Western part of the U.S.

Thus, the study points to two conclusions. Firstly, that automation will not occur in the same way everywhere and will be determined like many other economic changes. Second, anxiety about robots will also have its own geography. The hope is that both of these discoveries will make the problem of addressing the changing patterns of employment that little bit clearer.

Freddie Roberts is editor at Internet of Business. This article originally appeared hereInternet of Business is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, CFE Media, cvavra@cfemedia.com.

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