At the end of the last century (I love saying that) I worked for a robot company, Adept Technology, Inc.: www.adept.com. We manufactured and sold SCARA (Selective Compliant Assembly Robot Arm) robots, linear modules and dang incredible vision and motion controllers. This company employed some of the very best and brightest in the field of robotics. The business and stock took off as dot-com web use heated up and the need for automation of fiber optic component assembly expanded. Then the dot-com bubble burst and the company shrank to a shadow of its former self which frankly was never that big. But while working there and even now I have to say that I love automation. How could I not? Automation, robots, manufacturing, mechanical engineering, systems…..this is the intersection of all things geeky for an ops girl like me. But alas, it was not meant to be. I left Adept behind after about 5 years and went on to the world of computers, storage, printers and outsourced supply chains.
Is change a-comin? Is it possible that now is the time to ramp up automation around the world? I think so and here is why:
1. Labor is more expensive now than ever. “Cheap labor” in China is no longer available as the wage rates have increased 5X over the last decade. If you move manufacturing to follow the cheap labor you are moving to a riskier region with less infrastructure thus inflating other costs and even in those lower labor cost regions, the labor cost coupled with inflation is increasing.
2. Product is getting smaller and/or harder to handle. This has been true for a while but with new nano, solar and bio technologies it is impossible or at the least, not smart to handle product with hands.
3. The world is riskier. Is it time to bring some manufacturing back home? If labor is expensive but automation is available it is possible to pay once and then maintain with higher skills that we want and need to develop closer to home. Can we reduce the risk of our WW supply chains by being less dependent on labor in region with the associated political and social issues driving unrest?
4. Labor is scarce. In just about every developed or even most developing countries the birth rates are dropping. U.S. manufacturers will be hit hard in the coming years by the absence of retiring Baby Boomers who make up much of their skilled workforce. There will come a time when companies are praised for eliminating jobs, instead of adding them.
5. Automation technology is more capable. With improvements in memory density, compute speed and material technology, automation products are able to move, see, manipulate, handle, even feel components, products and packaging more efficiently and effectively.
But here is my rule for automation. Don’t automate first. First, make your process “automatable”. Use lean sigma techniques to take waste out. Consider Poke-Yoke techniques to make your assembly processes fool-proof. Design for assembly and test. Think about both even if the product is low volume. All of these best practices will increase quality, decrease cost and get you ready for automation if the math works out.
Bring in the robots. Accelerate automation. Super-charge the process of building stuff. Make it a core competency. It will be fun. I promise.