Robots as a Remedy to Shopfloor Tedium
13. January 2016
In any industry, at any company, there are jobs that while being 100% necessary are nonetheless menial, and that tediousness can generate high turnover.
Manufacturing in general, and plastics specifically, has its share of these tasks, which oftentimes fall to temporary employees, but as U.S. companies more aggressively automate their shop floors the need to ask people to do the boring (and at times potentially dangerous) work might be going away.
In our February issue, myself and Plastics Technology Executive Editor Matt Naitove look at a new concept in automation: the cobot (a combination of words collaborative and robot). Over the course of our interviews and in the subsequent story, a theme appeared where these so-called cobots were often tasked with the more tedious and repetitive work in a plant precisely because they wouldn’t get bored (with that boredom upping the chances for mistakes and/or injury).
For the article, I spoke with Michael Engler and Jim Hanke of Riverside, Calif.-based custom molder AMA Plastics. Hanke only recently joined AMA as its VP of operations, after Engler was promoted to president, and he was hired in part for his expertise in automation.
Hanke recalled a program at his previous employer where he and his automation crew were able to create cells for a sanding and buffing operation that cut down workers required from around 140 to 15, with half of those jobs that were obviated being temps and the other half regular employees. “I redeployed most of our own people,” Hanke said, “and I was able to move our people into better more key positions—move them up into the assembly operations, move them up into the lead operations—stuff like that, and it allowed them to get a better role.”
Engler noted that the automation can help molders like AMA fast track more promising hires sooner. “I think most people that are doing a perfunctory task don’t feel threatened when they lose that work to a robot,” Engler said. “We really try to redeploy people. In our industry if someone comes through the door and they function at a higher level; have common sense; have some mechanical aptitude; it really doesn’t take them long to move into a different role.”
Robots are nearly always viewed on a plant floor with suspicion—if a person can be replaced in one job by automation couldn’t robots adapt to replace them in all roles—but the promise of cobots holds out a less threatening, more cooperative future.
In researching the article, the most official definition of cobots and collaborative automation I could find came from Germany’s Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (IFA):
“Collaborative industrial robots are complex machines which work hand in hand with human beings. In a shared work process, they support and relieve the human operator.”
Hand in EOAT towards a more efficient (less boring) future.