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7 Ways Automation Makes Manufacturers More Competitive

Consumers are demanding: They want quality and speed at the right price, and
they expect the manufacturing world to deliver. As organizations everywhere
try to meet evolving consumer requirements-all while managing safety,
efficiency, and logistics within their facilities-each one faces the looming
threat of competitors closing in. With so much on the line, manufacturers
are challenged to adopt smart approaches that keep their businesses both
profitable and competitive.

More and more, these approaches are being influenced by the prospect of
game-changing automation. By integrating smart automation solutions,
manufacturers can achieve the kind of operational outcomes that lead to
sustainable bottom-line success. In fact, sales of industrial automation
equipment, including fixed and flexible options, are on the rise-an upward
trend that’s expected to continue as innovation, advancement and the entire
industry landscape mold to the needs of the market.

Fixed automation, sometimes called hard automation, refers to an automated
production process with a “fixed” sequence of operations determined by the
equipment’s configuration. Essentially, commands are programmed into the
machine to operate its cams, gears, wiring and/or other hardware that is not
easily changed over from one product style to another. Fixed automation
enables high production rates and is suitable for large-volume products of
identical specs. Examples include pneumatic (air-driven) devices, hydraulic
machines, electric cylinder assemblies, cartesian pick and place robots, and
parts feeding equipment. These options can be leveraged as standalone
automation or in tandem with industrial robots.

Flexible automation, also known as robotics, provides the opportunity to
accommodate changes and repurpose automation solutions for fluctuating
needs. Industrial robots can be programmed to perform multiple functions for
products of varying sizes and materials. Because reprogramming the equipment
in flexible automation is performed at a computer terminal (not on the
production equipment itself), there is no need to group identical products
into batches. A mixture of different products can be produced one right
after another. Common applications include welding, material handling and
machine tending, as well as picking, packing and palletizing.

For manufacturers considering whether new or additional automation might fit
into their current operations, it’s essential to understand how this
investment can positively impact the business. Here, we’re breaking down
seven of the most compelling ways leveraging automation can maximize
manufacturers’ competitiveness in the industry.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics
(BLS), unit labor costs (the total labor costs required to produce a unit of
output) rose in the vast majority of manufacturing industries in 2019. Of
the 51 industries in durable manufacturing, 45 experienced rising unit labor
costs. Of the 35 industries in nondurable manufacturing, 32 recorded rising
unit labor costs.

For so many companies, labor is the predominant cost in manufacturing a
product, not to mention the most difficult one to manage. The most obvious
way that automation helps slash this expense is by requiring fewer workers
to produce the same number of manufactured goods. Fewer workers means less
monetary allocation for not only payroll, but also employee taxes,
healthcare benefits, insurance and other related overhead costs. Of course,
this is just one aspect of a much larger labor cost benefit.

Take the high cost of employee acquisition and turnover. For one thing,
worker shortages are a real and present challenge in some areas. Recent
findings from the BLS Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey show that the
number and rate of total U.S. job openings have increased to 6.6 million
(+617,000) and 4.5 percent, respectively. There is also the vastly
increasing number of Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) approaching
retirement age. In less than 10 years, all of the workers in this generation
will be 65 years or older.

At an estimated 73 million, this generation is one of the largest living age
groups, second only to millenniums-a population highly unlikely to gravitate
toward production roles in manufacturing facilities.
What does this all mean? Well, particularly for jobs that are demanding,
dirty, dangerous or downright unpleasant, the time and expense it takes to
fill open manufacturing positions amid current employment conditions can
become a major burden-one that automation plays an immense role in easing.

Finally, there’s the cost of absenteeism, which results in a lack of
consistency and predictability in terms of planning for production shifts.
When workers unexpectedly leave early or call out, it can cause significant
and costly disruption to production uptime.

The capacity utilization rate is an important operational metric for
manufacturing companies, as it assesses their current operating efficiency.
Automation supports higher rates of capacity utilization by fostering
greater, faster output without requiring additional per-unit expense.

For instance, if you automate an existing process that was relying on human
workers for operation, now you have the ability to produce through lunches
and breaks, and even in the event of employee sickness or no-shows. In fact,
you could potentially run two 10-hour shifts via the automated process and
achieve the same output as you might over a 24-hour period consisting of
three 8-hour shifts (given, of course, that each person will require at
least one hour of non-production time for lunch and breaks).

Automation works tirelessly around the clock. It doesn’t get sick, get
distracted, require vacation time or take breaks. It is reliable and
And if demand necessitates a ramping up of your production output without
increasing your production time, automation gives you the opportunity to
produce more quickly-minus the need to invest in additional production
equipment and/or workers.

Manufacturing automation streamlines repetitive tasks and minimizes margins
of error. Adoption of modern systems has become critical for maximizing Cpk
and alleviating manufacturers’ quality, consistency and waste issues,
manifesting the following outcomes for those who embrace smart solutions.

. Repeatability & Precision:
Especially in the life sciences arena, such as pharmaceutical and healthcare
manufacturing, human error is a big concern. It is essential for these
products to have zero defects because people’s health and lives are at
stake. With the support of automated solutions that make ultimate
repeatability and precision a reality, you can mitigate the risk to both
consumers and the organization at large.
. Product Safety & Viability:
Particularly in the food and beverage industry, production and handling
processes that rely on human workers carry increased risk of introducing
contamination into the environment, which ultimately endangers the final
product. Automated systems minimize human interaction with the product,
thereby lessening the potential for contamination by germs, pathogens or
foreign objects that can result in discarded food, complex recall processes,
loss of consumer trust and legal liability.
. Reduced Waste:
When it comes to applications that involve uniformity and quality, human
error has the potential to incur substantial monetary losses. Consider, for
instance, companies in the faucet industry that utilize workers to fulfill
the polishing process. Because humans, by nature, are prone to making
mistakes, a certain amount of products will bear defective surface finishes
and must be discarded. Automation eliminates this waste.
. Mollified Material Damage:
In industries where expensive materials and equipment are handled by humans,
there’s ample opportunity for error to result in costly damage. Fiber optic
cable, as an example, is extremely fragile and, if mishandled by a worker,
can cost thousands of dollars. There’s also the risk of humans dropping
heavy parts, a mistake that can cause damage to the part itself, expensive
production equipment, or even a workplace injury.
. Unrivaled Skill & Consistency:
Think about the consistent motion required for production processes like
painting and welding. Automation affords a level of technique and uniformity
that humans are simply incapable of matching.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health
Administration (OSHA), work-related MSDs are among the most frequently
reported causes of lost or restricted work time. MSDs, or musculoskeletal
disorders, affect the muscles, nerves, blood vessels, ligaments and tendons.

Workers in many different industries and occupations can be exposed to risk
factors at work, such as lifting heavy items, bending, reaching overhead,
pushing and pulling heavy loads, working in awkward body postures and
performing the same or similar tasks repetitively. Exposure to these known
risk factors for MSDs increases a worker’s risk of injury.
In production facilities lacking automation, workers may be subjected to
safety and ergonomic concerns such as:

. Physical stress
. Strain
. Overexertion
. Repetitive motion
. Awkward postures
. Heavy lifting

These can cause employees to experience intractable pain, an inability to
work or physical conditions that necessitate medical care and time off-all
of which results in production downtime and higher costs for the
organization. On the other hand, automated solutions improve workplace
safety while optimizing workflow processes.

By creating a more favorable and ergonomic working environment, automation
has the potential to retain talent and limit liability. Safer, less rough
conditions, like those cultivated by replacing certain human-performed tasks
with machine-operated ones, minimize the risk of seeing a revolving door of
workers, the challenge of constantly training new people, the ongoing need
to attract employees for hazardous and undesirable jobs, and the liability
inherent in unsafe surroundings.

In the midst of a global pandemic, with its rippling social and economic
impacts, the market for manufacturing automation and industrial robots has
exploded. FANUC, the largest maker of industrial robots in the world, has
seen its volume demands flourish.

Why is this the case? One big reason is the now critical need for
manufacturers to safely space out their workers and limit human interaction.
Anywhere people are working in small, confined or heavily populated spaces,
there’s increased risk for exposure to a contagious virus. And just one
positive test result can lead to production declines or even a complete
shutdown. Manufacturing automation solutions support a reduction in the
manpower needed to occupy these spaces, thereby mitigating the overall risk
of infection.

In addition, there’s automation’s capacity to meet rising fulfillment
demands. Especially with regard to product categories that have skyrocketed
in response to the onset of stay- at-home guidelines and other
pandemic-related nuances, production requirements have amped up for some
manufacturers. Automation provides the platform for meeting increased
demands and tightened turnaround times.

Robots are already deployed across many segments of the supply chain, and
the industry expects to see an explosion in the number of robots working in
warehouses and DCs as the growth of e-commerce fulfillment continues to
rise. Even before the global pandemic and coinciding shifts in consumer
behavior, decreasing population, and increasing demand, the implementation
of robotics and automation was expected to expand as companies look for ways
to remain productive and competitive.

Once considered a futuristic trend, autonomous robots are quickly becoming
the useful and reliable technology for the logistics industry. Autonomous
mobile robots (AMRs) are proving to be a disruptive robotic solutions
technology that are increasing efficiencies, providing significant cost
savings, and mitigating risks associated with human resources. A variety of
AMRs are currently in use. Some are considered ‘collaborative’ – that is,
designed to work with and around people – and others non-collaborative.”
Additionally, this technology is working in both structured and
non-structured environments, making the implementation more advantageous
across several industries.

There’s a changing perception of automation occurring among the general
public. The common judgement, particularly after the last recession, used to
be that automation takes jobs away from the American workforce. Now, we’re
starting to see a shift in that mindset.

Yes, automation definitely replaces some of the unskilled labor force. By
leveraging it to keep factories up and running, however, you’re also
sustaining valuable jobs like administrative, human resources, and cleaning
and maintenance, not to mention the skilled workers required to program and
manage all of the new technology. In essence, manufacturing automation has
the potential to create both vast opportunities for employment and a greater
reliance on our own domestic resources.

Remember, the U.S. still has the cheapest and most consistent energy supply.
And the consumer is here. It’s always cheaper to manufacture closer to your
consumer. Manufacturing your product locally, where it is purchased, gives
you a huge competitive advantage in supply chain management. Automation
enables manufacturers to keep production onshore, giving U.S. companies a
competitive edge in the global market.

The evolution of manufacturing automation has transformed once difficult,
slow, and hazardous production tasks into remarkably safer and more
productive ones. As automation in manufacturing continues to advance in
sophistication, so do the advantages of leveraging such opportunities in
facilities across the industry. Although the prospect of adopting a
modernized approach to routine operations can seem daunting, the
profitability payoffs are well worth the leap.

Given all of the factors mentioned already, it stands to reason that
automation can produce and get items to your customers more efficiently,
thereby increasing your profit margins- gains that are poised to continue
well into the future. Here’s a more specific breakdown of how some of the
previously highlighted competitive advantages amount to cost savings and
expanded profitability.

. Labor Reduction: With the right automation solution(s), your organization
will require less manpower for its operations, including reduced HR and
overhead costs.
. Machine Utilization: Production numbers tend to drop as workers become
tired or call out, whereas automation has the ability to maintain
consistency throughout any shift, from beginning to end. This means your
line is set to run more efficiently and without the need to replace
equipment as frequently.
. Quality Improvements: With the precision of an automated process, you’re
positioned to produce less scrap or waste, an important measure of cost
. Ergonomic Savings: Automation minimizes the costly risk of workplace
injury, including time off, workers’ compensation, increased insurance
premiums and potential compliance fines.
. Worker Retention: When automation performs the unfavorable types of tasks
once assigned to human workers, it can foster a more amenable work
environment. Happier employees generally equate to less turnover, which
leads to a more lucrative bottom line.

Given the wide span and nature of ways to derive value from automation, it
can be argued that just about any manufacturing operation has the potential
to glean a competitive edge from embracing it. And even though automation
was too expensive for smaller companies to implement some 15-20 years ago,
this has completely changed over time. Now, automation is suited to
organizations of all sizes. As long as you’re seeking to lower cost and
improve efficiency, automation is worth your consideration.
The way in which your company ultimately chooses to leverage automation
should depend largely on your business goals and operational requirements.
Regardless, the opportunities for organizational competitiveness are

Consider partnering with an integrator who will work to understand and
accommodate your goals before designing an automation system that fully
supports them. Whether you already have detailed specifications for a
project or you’re looking for an expert to develop a plan based on your
cycle times, product information and overall business objectives, an
experienced integrator like Wauseon Machine has the knowledge and expertise
to make your integration a successful one.

About Wauseon Machine and Manufacturing
Wauseon Machine and its sister company, McAlister Design & Automation, are
industry leaders in robotics automation, tube fabrication equipment, and
build-to-print precision machines parts. With 40 years of experience, the
company has four separate focus plants dedicated to Tube-Forming
Technologies, Robotic Automation, and Precision Machining. Across their
plants, they focus on tool development, machine building, automation, and
providing contract CNC production machining of volume and custom precision
piece parts and components for other companies. Wauseon Machine / MD&A are
best in class suppliers of system integration to incorporate automation into
a variety of industries, applications and cutting edge technologies for
manufacturing. For more information, visit

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