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Machine Shop Tips Are Robots Gunning for Your Job?

I was fortunate enough to visit Milan, Italy this autumn. It was a very busy time of year, with the Expo going on as well as the International Machine Tool Show (EMO). There were literally thousands of people around you at all times. It really puts into perspective how many people are on our planet today. I attended the EMO show, but decided to forego the Expo since the crowds were too much for me.

Walking through the EMO show, I was struck by the amount of automation on display. Most of these displays included robots. Robots come in all sizes and shapes, from just arms to full size humanoid machines. It made me think of all the movies I have watched over the years that portrayed robots as human replacements. Some movies showed this in a positive way, and others in an evil, sinister way.

In today’s manufacturing factories, many people think of the sinister side and consider robots the enemy of jobs and employment. Every time we hear about robots, it usually means that one or more people will be unemployed because of this new technology. This may be true for much of the reporting that the public hears in the news, but it is not necessarily the whole truth. 

I guess we can say that there are two different types of companies that will get involved with robotics, and for two different reasons. The first company buys robots to eliminate human labour, which it considers to be inefficient and unpredictable. The second company buys robots to give their employees tools to be more productive and increase the quality of the products produced.

Both companies buy robots for different reasons but they are both striving to become more efficient. This makes them more competitive in today’s global marketplace where many of their competitors have very inexpensive labour. Along with these companies, I believe that automation, including robotics, is the key to long-term competitiveness in manufacturing. However, I believe that purchasing robotics to replace employees, as in the case of the first company example, is not a viable long-term strategy. I really believe that using automation and robotics as tools for your employees to improve their work, like the second company example, is a far sounder strategy. 

Automated/robotic systems are as efficient as possible when they are initially setup, but they remain at this level of efficiency for the foreseeable future unless something is changed. This means that unless there is some intervention, there are no future increases in efficiency. This is not a good long-term business strategy, as nothing will ever improve.

Employee involvement allows for a long-term strategy of continuous improvement because employees are able to identify small to large improvements and therefore keep the automated/robotic systems running as efficiently as possible. These improvements can maximize productivity and quality on an ongoing basis. If the humans are replaced with just robots, then this ongoing improvement is not going to happen. Humans need to be around to see the big picture.

The refinements and improvements made by human workers to the automated systems allows for an increase in efficiency that can be more than double what the initial level was when the robotic system was first installed. Giving employees better tools to accomplish better work is much more useful over the long-term than merely replacing them with robots.

Even with the onset of robotics, human employees are still your greatest asset. Let them use robotics to their advantage, and it will allow your organization to remain competitive over a longer period of time. Always remember to think long-term! The future of automation is here, but don’t let it cloud your appreciation of the value of your human workforce.