Are small manufacturers ready for R2-D2?

Image provided by Getty Images (muratsenel)

In my September 2014 article, I wrote: “The use of technology should be considered for its ability to support the safety, information needs and productivity of your employees. It should not be considered because it is cool or because some other company uses it.”

“The Jetsons,” “Star Wars, and “Back to The Future” whet our appetites for advanced technology. It’s easy to become enamored with technologies at trade shows or that we see in someone else’s operations. While the image of robots intermingling with employees can be exciting, is it profitable?

“Pick and place” robots have been used for years in manufacturing to replace dangerous, monotonous or error prone human activities. This type of equipment is especially valuable in high-speed, high-quantity, high-precision placement. The caveat, however, is that the process must be extremely precise for an entry-level robot to actually work.

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Low-priced robots require complete predictability of where, when and how. They can’t hunt around, figure out when to act or tweak things not quite right. That requirement for definitive processes is a significant challenge for most small manufacturers.

Unsophisticated robots are not cheap. Investing $10,000 to $40,000 in a simple option is a significant decision for small manufacturers. Moreover, the purchase price is only the first of several costs to be incurred.

Detailed programming and equipment maintenance may require new internal skills or outside contracting. Programs likely need revised whenever product shape, production processes or equipment locations change.

So is a robot a bad idea for a small manufacturer?

Not at all if you’ve thought it through and can effectively support it. In fact, it can have a positive impact on the business beyond the initial justification.

Consider these few questions before spec’ing your own R2-D2:

1. Does the work actually need to be done at all?

Automating work steps that shouldn’t be required in the first place makes no sense. If time is wasted looking for tools or materials, you will need to fix that before installing robots. The equipment must be programmed to know where to go when. As much as we might like it, there is no “figure it out on your own” button on low priced robots. Lean manufacturing methodologies can ensure tools, parts and information are well-located to support the worker.

I encourage you to quickly research “5S.” Well implemented, the concept will reduce “now, where is it?” wandering around and make robotics possible.

2. Is the work so elementary that a human shouldn’t be wasting his life doing it anyway?

Your employees are capable of contributing value far in excess of moving items from Point A to Point B. Utilizing a robot for basics and people for activities and decisions that require intellect can greatly improve job satisfaction and reduce turnover.

3. Could the robot supplement other material handling equipment you use?

If you currently depend on tow motors, hand jacks or similar devices to move product, a robot could augment that capacity and reduce waiting time. Perhaps the robot could lift and hold heavy items, allowing workers additional angles of access.

4. Does the work require judgment that an inexpensive robot can be programmed to have?

Make sure you understand the seemingly small decisions your employees are making every day as they complete their work. If those conditions can be standardized, do so, whether for your employees or a robot.

Considering injuries that a robot could have prevented, the value of better leveraging employee talent, enhanced speed a robot can facilitate, reduced variability a repetitive automated process may enable may make buying a robot a no-brainer. And you may love it so much you bring more of its family into yours.