With the cost of equipment coming down, manufacturers are using automation to cope with labor shortages.

Rob Spiegel

October 10, 2023

4 Min Read
advanced automation
Gorodenkoff via iStock / Getty Images Plus for Getty Images

Even before the pandemic, there was a shortage of manufacturing workers, particularly those with automation skills. As the pandemic moved through its three years, the shortage of workers grew precipitously. In response, manufacturers sought alternatives to human labor, specifically, advanced automation. This includes everything from robots to IoT systems that reduce work stoppages due to improved maintenance.

Automation has become a growing solution even for small manufacturers since the cost of the equipment is now in reach. Between 3D printing and off-the-shelf components, robots are not as expensive as in the past. Plus, advanced automation is becoming easier to use. You no longer need original programming to deploy automation.

Design News is presenting a free webinar on this topic, Advanced Manufacturing Is Getting Smarter, on Thursday, October 19 at 2:00 pm Eastern. The presenters include Aaron Donlon, product manager for robotics at Epson Robots, and Brian Coyne, VP of engineering for Harmonic Drive. We caught up with Donlon and Coyne to get their insights on the subject of advanced automation.

Design News: What’s involved in advanced automation? Robots? Data Analytics? IoT? AI/AR/VR?

Aaron Donlon: Manufacturers are using all of these tools to maximize their output. They’re also keeping people safe by using advanced motion. Some are using vision and artificial intelligence to look at data and make better decisions.

Brian Coyne: For automation, we offer actuators and encoders. Manufacturers use these tools for various pick-and-place or rotary functions. They are also using these components in robots to help with various tasks. One tool is the integrated actuator. You can connect an automation system with a long series of operations, using EatherCat for communication and connectivity. Industry 4.0 and IoT tools are also used for maintenance so you can monitor the condition of the equipment.

DN: What type of manufacturers are implementing advanced technologies? For years, it was mostly the 10% largest manufacturers. Are small- to mid-size companies now using smart tools?

Aaron Donlon: There is a large number of small-to-medium-size manufacturers adopting automation across the board. Labor scarcity is shortening their lead time. That’s driving a need for automation and simplicity. Twenty years ago, a robot cell was a million dollars. The small companies couldn’t afford it. Now, the price of robots is coming down. The components are off the shelf. People are using 3D printing for components. That’s bringing the cost down for automation goods. Then you have the cost of labor going up. So we’re seeing there’s an inflection point that encourages inventment in automation.

Brian Coyne: Twenty years ago, manufacturers moved away from hydraulics to other solutions. Now it’s automation. We have a mix of large and smaller companies.

DN: Is automation equipment becoming easier to use?

Aaron Donlon: Many people have to support the equipment; the graphic interface has to work well. It has to be easy to use so the normally skilled factory folks can operate the equipment. The better the interfaces, the more successful the equipment will be. Ease of use is important. We’ve come a long long way in that area.

DN: What are the benefits of automation? Reduced staff? Greater efficiency (more uptime, less downtime)? Improved quality?

Brian Coyne: The cost of labor is growing. When you have an automation system that completes a task – whether a robot or an automated line – the benefit is labor savings. That also gives you lights-out operations overnight.

Aaron Donlon: Manufacturers with high-mix and low-volume have been adopting automation. The technology can make that work. We’re also seeing the adoption of remote assistance that helps people train faster. We are seeing remote service. It was there before the pandemic, but face-time has improved. There’s now video of real-time operations. That’s a benefit, to get up and running quickly without people having to get on a plane.

DN: Where do you see this going over the coming five years?

Aaron Donlon: Robots everywhere. Our robots do a good fast job. With automation everywhere, we’re going to see a lot more robots. I'm excited and terrified about this, with cars driving on their own.

Brian Coyne: We’ll see a billion robots. There will be many types doing various tasks. We’ll see an extremely slim design. We’ll see high torque in a small package, and not just for automation. We’ll see more surgical robots as well.

You can sign up here for the webinar Advanced Automation Is Getting Smarter. The webinar runs for an hour on October 19, beginning at 2:00 pm Eastern.

About the Author(s)

Rob Spiegel

Rob Spiegel serves as a senior editor for Design News. He started with Design News in 2002 as a freelancer and hired on full-time in 2011. He covers automation, manufacturing, 3D printing, robotics, AI, and more.

Prior to Design News, he worked as a senior editor for Electronic News and Ecommerce Business. He has contributed to a wide range of industrial technology publications, including Automation World, Supply Chain Management Review, and Logistics Management. He is the author of six books.

Before covering technology, Rob spent 10 years as publisher and owner of Chile Pepper Magazine, a national consumer food publication.

As well as writing for Design News, Rob also participates in IME shows, webinars, and ebooks.

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