Through the use of automation, RPA and collaborative robots, manpower constraints can be turned into opportunities and solutions.

Manufacturers have always been highly attuned to change, but last year, the pandemic the industry seemingly overnight, causing deep and long-lasting impacts.

Now, manufacturers are adopting new innovations and utilizing collaborative automation as solutions to address complex issues such as employee safety, social distancing regulations, and productivity requirements. 

In the current VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) conditions, manufacturers that have emerged from 2020 with some strategic insights which I would like to share:

Four strategies for resilience

  • Automate
    For manufacturers, this is the single most powerful tactic for succeeding in a VUCA world.
    For example, one of India’s leading agricultural equipment manufacturers, Krishi Group, was struggling to keep up with demand until a collaborative robot (cobot) was introduced into its facility. The cobot now works alongside a human on quality control tasks that previously required two workers to complete. 

    When changes occur quickly, manufacturers need robots that are flexible, easy-to-repurpose and collaborative to work alongside humans. This will reduce the time to plan, budget, hire, and train employees for new skills, or undertake extensive plant and company reconfigurations.
  • Supply chains need a ‘Plan B’
    The pandemic hit the global supply chain quickly and acutely, exposing the vulnerability that had been building up for years. Manufacturers now know that they need a ‘Plan B’ in case remote production or supply is compromised and market demands shift.

    Many manufacturers have realized the advantage of being closer to their customers, even if that keeps them in regions with higher labor costs. The key is to be able to manage workers in terms of their availability and safety and to increase their value and skills to meet new production needs. To supplement manpower resource predictability, robotic process automation can help businesses to anticipate and respond more effectively to change, turning unexpected obstacles into new opportunities.
  • Labour shortages can lead to opportunity
    Previous offshoring trends were fueled by the dependence on lower-cost labor. Advances in robotics have drastically increased productivity and reduced costs across a number of manufacturing processes. Many of these can now be easily restored and deployed domestically. While labor rates in traditionally low-cost countries have seen annual increases in the double digits as well as the shortage of skilled labor, affordable cobots make automation even more accessible, independent of the company size.

    For example, PLC Industries, a Singapore-based service provider in precision engineering, was facing problems finding skilled labor and issues related to rising material and real estate costs. Subsequently, employing two collaborative robots allowed a single worker to attend to four CNC machines. This effectively quadrupled the productivity of every skilled worker, boosting output by a much-needed 40% to solve its production problems.
  • Meeting new safety requirements
    Infection control and safe-distancing measures will likely continue in this pandemic, and this is where robots can be deployed within standard production lines to offset face-to-face risks and create safe distance between workers while keeping output levels high.

    Case in point: technology manufacturer Dell was looking to increase its production efficiency by automating its electronics assembly lines and testing facilities at their plant in Chennai. Four years ago, it had seen good results with the deployment of a collaborative robot for end-of-line packaging. In 2020, three more cobots were put to work, increasing production efficiency while maintaining safety.

In many ways, manufacturers are navigating uncharted territories, but now more than a year on through the pandemic, we are finally seeing a promising future. Thanks to automation and robotics, manufacturers can address a VUCA world and emerge smarter, sharper, and better prepared for any situation.