SHOW ME COBOTS NOW: A Great (Surprisingly Doable!) Workforce Solution for these Troubled Times.

September 29, 2021
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By Bob Beckmann, Missouri Enterprise Project Manager

What once seemed like science fiction is quickly losing the fiction and is a part of many manufacturing facilities today.  Robots, or more specifically cobots (collaborative robots) have been around for a while, but adoption has been slow, including in our Show Me state of Missouri, where we need to see it with our own eyes before we’ll even consider it.  That “show me” attitude has its merits of course, and it can be an important part of risk mitigation when running a business.  But it’s important not to let the show me mentality get in the way of positive progress.

I’m personally witnessing the fact that cobots have arrived in a big way, and manufacturers are scrambling to learn more about how they can take advantage of them.  Companies are finding new and exciting ways to introduce cobots into their production processes to increase efficiency, reliability and profitability.  They’re yielding amazing results for manufacturers, and its high time to consider cobots for your facility today.  Why now, you say?  I’ll give you three rock-solid reasons:  The Workforce Crisis.  Affordability.  Easy Implementation (simplistic programming!).

Today’s manufacturing workforce shortage has dramatically accelerated the introduction of cobots into manufacturing production lines all over the country.  Cobots are ideal for repetitive, tedious, tiresome or dangerous tasks.  Common uses include palletizing product, packaging, welding, material removal, assembly and even quality inspections, but the practical uses of cobots are just being fully explored and manufacturers are creatively using them in amazing ways. 

Designed to work alongside your employees, cobots are ideal assistants that free up your workers for tasks that require their skilled hands.  Let the cobot do the “grunt work” part while your technicians and craftsmen do more of the skilled work you hired them to do.  Your cobot will efficiently do its tasks quickly and accurately, and it can run 24/7 if you need it to.  Gone are the worries of carpal tunnel, sharp edges or distractions.  And if an operator gets in the way of the cobot, the machine has a feedback system so that if it bumps you, it just stops.  This eliminates the old robot requirements of safety guarding.

The price of cobots has dropped considerably in recent years, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect for manufacturers who are struggling to maintain and grow their workforce.  Consider that today, a quality cobot might cost you $25,000, then consider that against the cost of an employee.  Fancier cobots might run in the neighborhood of $40,000 and up, but even that is highly competitive against employee costs.  If you can free up an existing worker to do more highly skilled tasks and pay the same or far less for a cobot to take on some of the undesirable jobs, the ROI becomes fast and simple.

The latest generation of cobots are amazingly simple to implement because they don’t require advanced programming skills – no more sending someone to a multi-week training program or bringing in an outside expert to program your equipment.  Today’s cobots aren’t programmed as much as they are “taught” their tasks by their human counterpart.  Depending on what you need it to do, a modern cobot can be taught its job in minutes, then consistently repeat its task accurately for hours, days and even weeks at a time. When a new task comes along, it can learn it just as quickly and can switch from one task to another with the punch of a few keystrokes.  Some companies even have their cobots mounted on carts, allowing them to be moved from department to department depending on the product being made that day.

Cobots have quickly become a great way to solve some of your manufacturing workforce woes, offering you a cost-effective way to complete some of your basic tasks on the plant floor.  The drop in cost has made cobots a practical reality you can now seriously consider, and the ease of implementation means you don’t need specialized expertise to use them anymore. 

But what about the “I’m from Missouri – Show Me” aspect?  I agree that nothing drives home a point more than a practical demonstration, and that’s something we’re working on right now at Missouri Enterprise.  Along with a number of my colleagues, I recently attended the Foundation for Manufacturing Excellence 2021 Best Practice Conference in Phoenix, Arizona.  It was a fantastic event, and I was impressed by a number of things including the conversations on cobots (and on Additive Manufacturing/3D printing, but that’s for another article!). 

The event included fellow manufacturing experts and I was struck by one statement during a presentation.  The speaker said, “Once we get a manufacturer to purchase and use one cobot, that plant manager suddenly starts seeing more and more opportunities around the factory floor, and they order a second cobot before the end of the first day.”  Well, that says it all, doesn’t it?  Seeing is believing.  But there is still that leap of needing to buy a cobot to actually see the practical applications you can use it for in your operation.

Other states’ MEPs at the convention told us how they are putting on a “travelling roadshow” to physically bring and show exciting new technology to manufacturers at their factory.  They are filling a van or trailer with all sorts of modern technology goodies for manufacturing – things like 3D printers, virtual reality equipment, cobots and other automation.  With these mobile demonstration capabilities, they can show manufacturers just how practical and easy to implement these modern technologies can be.  The onsite demonstrations demystify the equipment and usage concepts to get them thinking about how they can implement them in their plants.  We think it’s a great idea, and we’re working to see if we can’t make the idea a reality in Missouri.  Our goal is that when we talk cobots to a Missouri Manufacturer, and they say, “Show Me.”, we can say, “Will do.  We’ll be right over.”  Barring unforeseen circumstances, we fully expect to be rolling out something along these lines in the reasonably near future.  Missouri Enterprise is a go to resource for all things manufacturing in Missouri, and this would be an incredible resource to provide.  It’s going to happen at some level, so keep in touch with Missouri Enterprise to learn more.