While industries across the country are currently being hit hard with labor shortages and the general aftermath of COVID-19, none have been nor continue to be impacted as severely as manufacturing. Today, more than 77% of manufacturing executives expect to have trouble hiring and retaining employees throughout 2021. As this issue persists, many are looking to automation to fill vacant positions and alleviate the stress of a reduced labor force. Yet, choosing to invest in and implement automation is a decision that goes much further than simply seeing tasks completed— for a real-world operation, there is much more to gain.
Typically, automation’s ability to (in some cases, drastically) improve production times is what drives interest in it. With the growing dominance of e-commerce, which was accelerated immensely by COVID-19 and its effects, customers are now looking more than ever to receive products in the most convenient and fastest ways possible. It is much easier to meet the 2-day delivery standards held by customers today utilizing machine labor than with humans. Yet, there are other significant pulls to automation to consider as well. One of these is the consistency of performance.
In the manufacturing of any kind, many jobs entail performing the same task, creating or assembling the same part, repeatedly for several hours before another operator switches out to do the same. Any study completed by humans is sure to be completed in variable ways, at varying speeds, and with some degree of error. This is especially true when that same task must be repeated hundreds of thousands of times. This human variability goes even further when shifts change, and new operators must take over performing the task who may have different ways of approaching or executing the same process. On the other hand, machines are essentially perfect, given they have been properly built and programmed. Tasks carried out by them are guaranteed to be performed utilizing the same processes and methods each time, making them a far more predictable and consistent means of producing parts or products that require repetitive actions. With this, quality improves and can be standardized across batches and shifts. At the same time, production time for the particular item in question is kept more or less uniform across time, making it easier to quantify and factor into overall production time.
While this consistency improves nearly every aspect of production, it has two significant advantages that make it a central selling point of automation. The first of these is managing large, unexpected spikes in demand from customers; in these cases, a more stable baseline operation is necessary to scale up production to weather these peaks properly, and automation can make this possible even through weekends and other unpredictable times.
The second is a matter of safety. When an employee performs the same task repeatedly for an extended period, the risk of human error and resulting injury increases each time, as movements become more automatic and less precise and the operator becomes less aware. This can also apply to tasks that are less ergonomic or more physically demanding to complete than others, such as over-molding, a manufacturing technique commonly used at EirMed. In this process, two materials are combined by placing a base material into a molding machine and firing a second material around it, creating a single component. Because the base material must be pressed very firmly into the molding machine before overmolding can begin, this process can be uncomfortable for workers, particularly straining on the back, and may present a real risk of injury in some cases. Removing strenuous actions such as these and highly repetitive ones from the duties of employees through automation eliminates these risks and ultimately creates a safer working environment.
One thing that must be addressed when speaking of automation, of course, is the concern of permanently removing jobs from the workforce. Often, implementing automation is viewed as directly eliminating a job and, therefore, an employee. Yet, automation engineers such as EirMed’s own Tanner Teasdale are quick to assure us that automation aims not to remove workers or replace them but to redeploy them in areas better suited to human abilities. Rather than performing repetitive, uncomplicated tasks, human employees can be directed to areas requiring more attention to detail or critical thinking than a machine is currently capable of. Quality inspection is one excellent example of such a position.
If you are looking into automation for your business, probably your most burning question is, how soon can I expect a return on my investment? The answer to this question is variable dependent on several factors, including the complexity of the machinery involved, the size of investment that must be made, the number of parts that will need to be produced, the overall production volume to be handled, and more. While it can be challenging to formulate a definitive answer, what can be said is that ROI is mainly dependent on the relationship between time, money, and volume. Over a 6-to-12-month period, an automated piece of equipment must be used 30-40% of the time to approach a full payback, accounting for labor removed from the total cost and the amount of savings experienced from implementing automation as weighed against the initial investment. For programs running large enough volumes, or applications used across multiple programs, this can be quite feasible and may see returns sooner rather than later.
No matter if you are looking to improve your production times, fill gaps in your workforce, or improve operational stability, investing in automation can pay off in spades if done correctly. At EirMed, our goal is to connect customers with automation applications that best serve their needs and enhance their business, whether developing specialized systems or investing to pioneer entirely new platforms. In manufacturing, automation is the way of the future— is now the time for you to take the plunge?
 Egan, Matt. “American Factories Are Desperate for Workers. It’s a $1 Trillion Problem.” CNN. Cable News Network, May 4, 2021. https://www.cnn.com/2021/05/04/economy/manufacturing-jobs-economy/index.html.