Industrial robots – the perfect worker?

According to World Robotics 2021 Industrial Robots report by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), America ranked third in the world for the installation of industrial robots in 2020, with 39,000 units installed. The Asia and Pacific region leads with 266,000 installations, and Europe takes second place with 68,000. The same report showed that the United States ranked sixth in the world for robot density, with 255 robots for 1,000 employees. Here, Claudia Jarrett, US Country Manager for industrial automation provider, EU Automation, explains why US industry should continue to build automation to ease its labor shortage.

Solve the labor shortage

The labor shortage in the United States is well documented, and the agriculture industry provides a clear example of the challenges of poor staffing. The number of US farms has been steadily declining since 2007, dropping from 2.2 million to 2 million in 2020. Conversely, the number of temporary farm visas granted by the federal government has quadrupled since 2007, highlighting the struggle growing shortage of labor for farms.

Britain, a country that installs just 2,200 industrial robots a year, faced a similar problem in 2021, where labor shortages in agriculture left produce rotting in the fields. . Collaborative robots (cobots) are already providing solutions, such as automated fruit pickers. These machines use computer vision, a form of AI, to identify ripe fruit and then pick them using pliers, suction cups or sometimes miniature saw blades. Commercial options are slowly coming to fruition too, with Robotic Plus’ kiwifruit picker; pepper picking Robot sweeper; and the strawberry-picking Agrobot. Only a handful of experienced farmers would need to oversee the operations of these cobots, simultaneously solving labor shortages and increasing yield.

Apprehension of automation

The benefits of automation are clear, so why is the US lagging behind other developed countries in deploying robots? A controversial proponent of embracing automation is the idea that it will take jobs away from humans, leading to exponential unemployment. However, this is not necessarily true.

The electronics industry provides a striking example where robotics has not resulted in catastrophic layoffs. The electronics industry is the largest employer in the world with 17.4 million people currently employed in 2022. Interestingly, electronics is also the largest industry for industrial robot installations, with 109,000 in 2020.

The use of industrial robots in electronics manufacturing is essential for repeatable precision for coating and filling printed circuit boards, assembling connectors, and handling components. That said, the human element for the industry is just as important. Engineers are crucial for data analysis design, software development and maintenance.

While robots can fill menial jobs — like the ever-vacant agricultural picking roles mentioned earlier — this frees up workers to take on more fulfilling and creative roles.

It is seen that human jobs are most likely at risk in companies that are slow to automate, as they struggle to compete with the output of adopters, resulting in the need to downsize. On the other hand, those who adopt robotics early experience a spike in productivity and production, leading to sustained growth and increased potential for hiring new employees. Although a change in the composition of the workforce is noted, there is an overall net gain for employment opportunities.

Costs and obsolescence

The high cost of the units and their integration into the production line can deter manufacturers from adopting industrial robots. Although the face value cost is high, the return on investment (ROI) can be significant.

Unsurprisingly, there are also often concerns about obsolescence in robotics. The industry is constantly advancing and producing new models, which can be daunting for those hoping to invest in their first robot. For manufacturers in this position, it is recommended to invest in a traditional industrial robot model, such as a six-axis, SCARA, or Cartesian model, rather than experimenting with a new variety of robots, such as the aforementioned cobots. Similarly, obsolete robots and their parts are also available from credible vendors such as EU Automation.

US manufacturers should not be intimidated by the initial cost of industrial robots when the return on investment can be high. The increase in the number of industrial robots installed in the United States will help manufacturers remain globally competitive with increased production potential. Increasing automation in a variety of industries such as agriculture and manufacturing can ease labor shortages that are straining businesses. Investing in traditional and simpler models can lower the face value cost for businesses while increasing efficiency. Credible suppliers such as EU Automation who can provide obsolete parts under warranty for older models reduce the stress of breakdowns and losses due to unplanned downtime.

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Mavis R. Bernier