Pick and Place for Profit: Using Robot Labor to Save Money

In the News
July 14, 2017

Over the last 50 years the cost of labor in manufacturing has risen steadily, and the willingness of many people to perform highly repetitive tasks on assembly lines has decreased. Over the same period the equivalent hourly cost of robot labor has steadily declined.

Human labor turnover in U.S. manufacturing averaged 16% in 2016 according to a Compensation Force survey, and overseas contract manufacturing’s average turnover is 20 to 30% a year, imposing both a high training and quality cost. Also, in the U.S. labor productivity in the manufacturing sector has stalled over the last few years; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics it was -0.6% in 2015 and 0.2% in 2016.

A new trend in robot manufacturing

Large powerful robots were introduced in the 1960s for heavy and dangerous jobs, and smaller robots were introduced in the 1980s for small part assembly and material handing jobs. Until recently robots had to be separated from workers for safety reasons and required trained programmers to develop applications. Safety screens which consumed floor space in factories and application development costs created significant barriers to installing robots.

Recently, robot manufacturers have been introducing a new type of robot called “Collaborative Robots”. These machines are designed to be able to work next to people and will not injure people if they bump into them. In addition, for simpler tasks, such and loading and unloading a machine from a pallet of parts, these robots can be programmed from a graphical user interface without the need to write any software.

These newer robots reverse a previous trend toward faster and faster robot motions. Robot manufacturers selling smaller robots for assembly and material handling had sped these robots up to the point where the tool speed could be 10 meters/second, and the motions were so fast that they were quite scary. The newer collaborative robots are limited to slower speeds, typically 0.5 meters/sec to 1.5 meters/sec, which is similar to the speeds people work at, and let people to feel comfortable near the collaborative robots, allowing people and robots to mix on the same line.

Robot labor cost, computed as the installed cost of the robot plus tooling and engineering, running 2 shifts, at $2-$3 per hour, is now lower than the cost of labor in China and other low-cost regions. To the extent that robots can be easily installed for an application, they allow U.S. and European manufacturers to reduce labor cost as a consideration of where to manufacture.

Read More