Friday, September 28, 2018

Collaborative Robots: Boosting Workplace Morale

FISHERS,  – 

Collaborative robots, or “cobots,” are robots designed to work safely among and with human workers. They are capable of doing most tasks that a person can handle, such as screw-driving, drilling, machine tending, and part inspection, just to name a few. When cobots first started entering the manufacturing workplace, the natural concern from front-line workers was “A robot is going to take my job!”

This is still a common refrain among shift operators any time the topic of automation arises. During the aftermath of the Great Recession, when the national unemployment rate was around 10%, there weren’t enough jobs to go around. If a robot was put on the shop floor, it likely meant that someone was losing their job. Fast forward to 2018, the nation as a whole is close to full employment, and there are now more available jobs than there are people to fill them. Signs stating “Now Hiring” and “Apply Here” are everywhere.

There are numerous factors leading to the present workforce crisis. The expanding U.S. economy is driving significant growth in domestic manufacturing. The manufacturing industry has historically suffered from a negative, yet false, perception among parents and educators of the upcoming future labor force, creating a lack of interest in careers in the industry. The growing drug epidemic has resulted in more failed drug screenings among manufacturing job applicants, and the baby boomer generation is continuing to retire in droves.

According to research conducted by The Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte, there will be an estimated 2 million unfilled manufacturing jobs by 2025. With so many unfilled jobs, greater stress is placed on the existing manufacturing workforce. Front-line workers have to handle more and more to keep up with demand. This leads to over-worked employees, greater safety risks, and higher costs for employers.

In the absence of enough skilled workers, cobots are one of the solutions available to help manufacturers solve their workforce challenges. Cobots are often used to handle the dull and difficult tasks that shift workers dislike doing on a daily basis. By taking on these undesirable or low-value tasks, operators are freed up to do more interesting and worthwhile work. This leads to greater job satisfaction, better employee retention, and higher productivity.

Cobots are safe, ease to use, and affordable for most small-to-medium sized manufacturers. Companies and their employees alike are finding that cobots make their lives easier. MIT researchers studied the impact of human/robot collaboration and discovered that humans and robots working together are 85% more productive than either working alone. Often, operators are initially hesitant and skeptical when cobots are deployed on the factory floor, but as they see how much easier their jobs are with cobots, they often find they can’t live without them. Shift workers have described cobots to be as easy to use as a smartphone. After a successful initial cobot deployment, front-line workers frequently look for other tasks where a cobot might be utilized and approach management about the possibility of using more cobots on the factory floor.

Although it is quantitatively difficult to measure the impact of cobots on employee morale and job satisfaction, the anecdotal evidence is both overwhelming and easy to understand. There are numerous testimonials from front-line workers about how cobot assistance makes their jobs more satisfying. It is simple to understand why the response is so positive. Put yourself in the shoes of an operator who spends an entire shift driving screws into parts coming down a conveyor belt. How bored would you be by the end of the shift? How badly would your hand ache? With a cobot doing that task, you would be free to work on something more interesting and less prone to a repetitive motion injury.

The age of cobots is changing the thinking around automation in the workplace. Cobots are giving operators better opportunities to have more meaningful and impactful jobs with their employer. With cobots taking on those dull and difficult tasks, front-line workers are increasingly saying, “Take my job. Please!”

Writer: Robert Goosen, 317-388-5128, rgoosen@purdue.edu

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