with an automated blade that cuts the bad spots out of a potato is a good use of technology. You’re not going to get a human who can do that quickly.”
Automating Piece by Piece
Another challenge facing manufacturing is deciding what to automate across a factory full of exiting assets. Most manufacturers can’t afford to replace much of their equipment. “While there are lots of new capabilities, if you look at most organizations, they cannot afford to overhaul their complete business by automating everything,” said Koenemann. “This is a matter of focus. How do you find the right automation to improve quality, productivity, and safety when you can’t automate everything?”
The emerging automation tools are flexible. They can be deployed in a variety of settings. Yet these tools do not come cheap. Manufacturers have to pick and choose what to automate and how. “The automation itself probably works in any plant environment, but it’s the amount of capital that is needed to do it that’s a challenge,” said Koenemann. “That’s going to take time. Companies have 15- or 20-year-old equipment and replacing that will cost a lot of money.”
In the industrial setting, technology adoption is gradual, and the benefits come slowly. It took many years for networked systems to pay for themselves. Fully automated plants are probably inevitable, but that doesn’t mean they’re coming quickly. “In the early 2000s, we heard that the internet was going to change how companies bought and sold their products. Yet it’s only been in last two or three years that has really taken hold,” said Koenemann. “Over time, the things we’re hearing about automation and robotic optics will continue to develop, but a lot of companies have significant infrastructure and it will take time to bring this in to create a lights-out factory.”
CAN ROBOTS FILL THE SKILLS GAP?
With labor costs increasing and robot costs declining, collaborative robots have become an alternative to human labor in some cases. They are becoming less expensive, more flexible, and increasingly filling a skills and cost niche. But are they the answer to the increasing need for manufacturing labor in the face of baby boomer retirements and government/regulation changes? Register today for ATX East , June 13-15 in NYC, and find out the answer to this question and more!
Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 17 years, 15 of them for Design News . Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.
Graphic courtesy of TBM Consulting