Cobots and workers: Better together
Cobots improve productivity, shifting workers away from dirty, dangerous, and dull jobs
By Joe Campbell
Despite concerns about recessionary headwinds in 2019, the U.S. manufacturing sector continues to outpace much of the rest of the economy. For example, during the first month of 2019, the purchasing manager’s index rose to 54.9—well above a reading of 50, indicating continued expansion. Also, in January, U.S. manufacturing added 32,000 jobs, bringing the total number of U.S. workers in manufacturing to 12.84 million, or roughly the same number employed prior to the 2007 recession. This resurgence in U.S. manufacturing employment has helped the U.S. economy to be one of the strongest in the past 12 years. However, this growth comes with challenges.
Manufacturing by the numbers
The primary challenge facing manufacturers today continues to be their inability to fill open positions, placing a drag on productivity and growth. In late 2018, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) issued its latest Manufacturers’ Outlook Survey, which confirmed that finding skilled workers remains a top challenge for manufacturing executives today.
The Society of Manufacturing Engineers reports 89 percent of manufacturers are having difficulty finding skilled workers. And the situation does not appear ready to improve any time soon. The most recent skills gap study from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute—NAM’s social impact arm—projects more than half of the 4.6 million manufacturing jobs created over the next decade will go unfilled.
While filling open manufacturing positions is the first challenge employers face, keeping them in those positions is a close second. Quitting and changing jobs is the primary cause (32.6 percent) of manufacturing workers changing positions in 2018, and more than 115,500 manufacturing workers and 17,000 warehouse workers missed workdays due to injuries, with direct and indirect costs that can match or exceed losses in production capacity. In fact, the American Society of Safety Engineers estimates that indirect costs of a worker injury are up to 20 times greater than direct costs.
Direct costs are more obvious, such as medical expenses and lost production, but indirect costs can affect the bottom line even more. These include hiring temporary workers, opportunity loss, the blow to morale resulting in wide productivity losses, and additional administrative burdens to manage an employee’s return to work.
The cost of workplace injury
According to the National Safety Council (NSC), the total cost of work injuries in 2017 was $161.5 billion. This figure includes both direct and indirect losses, including wage and productivity losses of $50.7 billion, medical expenses of $34.3 billion, and administrative expenses of $52.0 billion. This total also comprises employers’ uninsured costs of $12.4 billion, including the value of time lost by workers other than those with disabling injuries who are directly or indirectly involved in injuries. Further contributing to that $12.4 billion is the cost of time required to investigate injuries, write up injury reports, and so forth.
The $161 billion in work injury costs during 2017 is the equivalent of $1,100 for every employed worker in the U.S. More than 104 million workdays were lost due to workplace injuries ($70 million) and fatalities ($34 million). This is in addition to the $95 billion that U.S. companies pay annually in workers’ compensation insurance. Bringing these national numbers down to the individual incident, the NSC estimates that the average direct and indirect cost of a workplace injury was $39,000 in 2017, and the average work-related fatality costs were an average of $1.15 million.
While the numbers above represent U.S. employment as a whole, a deeper look into manufacturing reveals the sector is outperforming the general economy in job growth as well as workplace injuries and associated costs, thanks to the nature of the work and the aging manufacturing workforce.
Make or break? A manufacturing tale
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) places the majority of manufacturing and warehouse workers into a single occupational group: installation, maintenance, and repair. This group includes industrial machinery and millwrights; electrical and electronics installers and repairers; and general maintenance workers. In 2016, the manufacturing industry accounted for 394,600 work-related injuries—second only to health care and social assistance, including police and fire, according to the BLS.
At an average cost of $39,000 per injury, the manufacturing industry lost more than $15 billion in 2017 in direct and indirect costs due to workplace injuries. Although fatalities thankfully were far fewer in incidence, the tragedy of losing 335 first-line supervisors of production equipment and 330 laborers, warehouse, and material handlers between 2003 and 2016 cannot be overestimated.
An aging manufacturing workforce further complicates the problem. According to NAM, workers between the ages of 55 and 64 account for up to 27 percent of the manufacturing workforce today. When older workers are injured, they average three times as many days away from work as their younger counterparts, missing an average of 15 days per injury versus five days for workers in their 20s, or six days for those in their 30s.
All of these numbers add up to one conclusion, amidst a labor shortage that is constricting the availability of skilled workers: on-the-job injuries place a heavy toll on manufacturers, both financially and operationally.
At Aircraft Tooling, a Texas-based repair center for the aviation industry, a UR10 has taken over the metal powder and plasma spray processes, a dirty and potentially hazardous tasks for human operators. The company was surprised to find that their Universal Robots could withstand the high temperatures and harsh environment.
Automation: The safe solution
One well-documented way to fill the manufacturing labor gap and shift workers away from dirty, dangerous, and dull jobs is the use of automation, including robots and “cobots.” A cobot is a “collaborative robot” that—unlike traditional industrial robots—can work hand-in-hand with humans without posing unacceptable risks of injury.
Cobots tend to operate more like humans, working at human pace and capable of lifting payloads similar to a human worker. Traditional industrial robots, in comparison, move faster and have more power, which can pose a significant threat to unprotected human workers, often necessitating fencing and additional costly safety precautions.
At EVCO Plastics in Wisconsin, the cobots work right alongside the employees on the packaging line, taking over the most arduous lifting and placing of parts into boxes. “Eliminating the labor cost allows us to run basically two jobs for the cost of one cobot, so the payback comes quite quickly that way,” says Bernie Degenhardt, automation manager. “Adding to the quick payback are also savings on workers’ compensation insurance, which is a big deal. The cobots help reduce any kind of repetitive strain injuries, so we actually get a lower rate, which is a huge cost savings to us.”
The top five types of workplace injuries include contact with harmful objects (40 percent), overexertion (24 percent), slips and falls (19 percent), repetitive motion (8 percent), and contact with harmful substances/chemicals (6 percent). According to studies by Travelers Insurance, manufacturing automation—and cobots in particular—can help reduce or eliminate three out of the five leading causes for workplace injuries: contact with harmful objects, heavy lifting, and repetitive stress injuries, essentially reducing the incidence of workplace injuries by up to 72 percent.
Although most automation projects today look to productivity improvements to justify their cost, it is easy to forget that robots were originally developed as tools to take over the less desirable tasks on the line. Unlike “dumb” automation that cannot sense and react to its surroundings, advanced automation, such as cobots, can protect more workers in applications that were beyond the ability of traditional robots or production equipment.
Unlike traditional robots that require engineer-level programming, however, cobots are designed to make programming simple through human-machine interfaces (HMIs) familiar to anyone who has used a smartphone. With advances in artificial intelligence algorithms, cobots are also capable of learning on the job. Often, a worker can reprogram a cobot simply by putting its arm through the desired motions; the cobot remembers the instruction and repeats it independently, without the need for new code.
By eliminating the need for a formal education in programming or robotics, such interfaces and capabilities make the skills gap and learning curve for using cobots diminishingly small. This also greatly reduces the time, effort, and cost associated with retasking a cobot for temporary tasks or burst production during busy seasons.
At Taiwanese injection molder BTC Mold, the UR cobots have lowered the occupational hazard risks, creating a workplace that is friendlier and safer. Before, workers had to repeatedly bend over to pack boxes with shoehorns, one of the many ergonomically un-friendly tasks now taken over by the cobots.
Taking over the factory’s most repetitive and strenuous tasks means cobots not only help reduce injury, they also help human workers upskill to more complex roles, such as programming and maintaining the cobots, which can significantly improve employee morale.
Industrial robot work cells often require costly and time-consuming factory customization, but a cobot’s flexibility translates to a significantly faster return on investment (ROI). By speeding deployment with minimal disruption to a factory layout, and by enabling minimally trained workers to safely program and use the technology to multiply productivity and improve quality, cobots’ payback is often measured in weeks or months. (See www.universal-robots.com/case-stories for more details.)
This fast ROI is not just a function of cobot technology’s lower capital cost versus industrial robots. It is enabled by cobots’ ability to multiply the value of an enterprise’s human assets, freeing workers to tackle higher productivity processes and acquire new skills for a modern manufacturing age.
These productivity gains, along with the inherently safe design of cobot solutions, mean this new automation technology can realistically reduce up to 72 percent of the common causes of injury in manufacturing environments. Cobots do not come to work tired or sick; they always do as they are told without complaint—including performing every safety check; and they are not affected by repetitive and potentially dangerous tasks like machine tending, welding, and assembly. By combining productivity and quality gains with safer workplaces, cobots will be an important component in the solution to the manufacturing labor gap today and tomorrow.
At T&W Stamping in Ohio, employees have a new type of colleague working side-by-side with them, as the UR5 arrived to tend the resistive welders. Operator Frank Fowler once welded the brackets by hand, a tedious and ergonomically unfriendly task. Now he is programming the robot and is in charge of product inspection.