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Wednesday, March 03 2021

Manufacturers Hit the Automation Gas Pedal


It can be reliably said that the Indiana manufacturing industry is one of the main engines that drive our state’s economy. The global coronavirus outbreak threw a big wrench into that engine when the pandemic erupted across the nation back in March of last year (2020). Manufacturers scrambled to react to the many disruptions on their factory floor and worked hard to modify their operations to overcome supply chain failures, worker absenteeism, and new government regulations that severely impacted production.

The pandemic greatly exposed the vulnerabilities that exist within our manufacturing industry. How can a company make products when over half their workforce is stuck in “pit row” being either sick, at-risk of severe complications due to pre-existing conditions, or self-isolating due to possible virus exposure? Where possible, businesses allowed their employees to work from home, but when people are needed to run production lines, that just isn’t an option.

Many manufacturers took different preventative measures to keep the wheels turning. Several forward-looking companies also began evaluating solutions to avoid similar process disruptions in the future, which led to many plant managers to take a fresh look at automation. The technological advances in robotics and automation within recent years have not only made it easier to deploy robots on the factory floor, but have also lowered the cost of deployment, enhanced quality, increased reliability, and improved repeatability. In a 2020 podcast interview with the Brookings Institute, James Bessen, executive director of the Technology and Policy Research Initiative at Boston University’s School of Law, noted that although automation and technological progression have always taken place, improvements in industrial robotics and automation are occurring much more rapidly than in times past1.

Artificial intelligence and deep learning have enabled better automated quality control capabilities and parts inspection. Collaborative robots (robots designed to work safely next to human workers) have made it easier for small and medium-sized manufacturers to deploy a relatively affordable and versatile robot that is easier to program than traditional industrial robots. Data digitization and IoT (Internet of Thing) connectivity have expanded real-time production monitoring and faster response to process interruptions and unplanned downtime.

Due to the pervasive effects of COVID-19, many manufacturers last year hit the gas pedal to accelerate their automation strategy and deployment plans. According to industry data, sales of robotic units in North America grew 3.5% in 2020 compared to 2019 sales2. Given the economic uncertainties associated with the lingering effects of the pandemic, the turmoil of the 2020 election, and potential regulatory changes from a new administration, some manufacturers understandably were concerned about the future economic outlook and tapped their brakes last year, deciding to hold off on making substantial investments in automation technologies. Now, as more and more people become vaccinated and another round of pending federal stimulus payments appear likely to inject more fuel into the economy, those companies who pumped the brakes risk being left in the dust while their competitors turbo-charge their factories with advanced automation technologies.

But it isn’t too late for those who are trailing behind. Even if a company has no experience whatsoever with automation or robotics, free local Indiana resources are available to help small-to-medium sized manufacturers explore new and easy-to-deploy automation solutions that don’t require having a technology specialist on the payroll.

The Purdue Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) has a federally funded program called I-SMART (which stands for Implementing Small Manufacturer Assistance with Robotic Technologies). The I-SMART program offers manufacturers assistance with adopting automation technologies in areas such as robotics and flexible automation. This assistance exists as education, training, product demonstrations, application evaluations, and project management. Through an on-site evaluation, often alongside an industry partner, Purdue MEP delivers a comprehensive report with the evaluation findings and technology adoption recommendations at no cost to the client.

For more information, please contact Purdue MEP at 317-275-6810 or by email at

About Purdue MEP

Purdue Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) provides high-value solutions to help Indiana businesses maximize their success. As advocates for Indiana's thousands of manufacturers, our staff identifies areas of improvement, streamlines processes and, ultimately, increases competitiveness. Purdue MEP serves over 500 companies annually by implementing continuous improvement principles in the areas of productivity, growth, and technology.



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Writer: Robert Goosen, 765-496-4101,

Writer: Kyle Squillace, 317-373-3910,

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