4 Ways Robots Deliver ROI to Small and Medium-Sized Manufacturers

Robots present a common conundrum for small and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs). On the one hand, they can help smaller operations improve efficiencies and become more competitive within their industry. But are they worth the initial investment, time, resources, and risk to implement?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, SMMs (manufacturing organizations with under 500 employees) make up nearly 99% of all manufacturing organizations in the United States, yet they are often the least likely to take advantage of the potential ROI from a robotics investment, from reducing bottlenecks and increasing production to addressing industry labor gaps and improving job satisfaction.

It’s true: There is no single robotic solution for every manufacturing application and environment. Each operation must identify their specific pain points to reap real benefits from automation. But many organizations face common problems. To that end, here are four potential ways that robots can often benefit SMMs.

1. Better Quality Control

From articulated robot arms to “spider” pick-and-place machines, traditional robots or collaborative robots (also known as cobots) equipped with vision systems can identify part orientations and identify critical features to check for presence, identify typical flaws, or take measurements. Once a pass-fail quality check is completed, flawed parts are rejected and quality parts are delivered to final assembly or packaging. Results can also be recorded for tracking and traceability requirements.

ROI benefits include:

  • Reduced scrap rate from in-process inspections
  • Fewer quality returns due to missed part flaws
  • Inspection staff can be reallocated to more value-added tasks
  • Facilitate 100 percent inspection, when required

2. A Safer Work Environment

From avoiding OSHA fines to preventing workers’ compensation claims, SMMs are well aware of the ROI of a safe, productive work environment. Robots can perform potentially dangerous or repetitive manufacturing tasks or tasks that must take place in a hazardous environment.

ROI benefits include:

  • Reduced risk of costly worker injuries from hazardous tasks
  • Improved employee retention by automating undesirable tasks
  • Increased worker satisfaction due to emphasis on employee safety

3. Reshoring for More ROI

Many SMMs outsource time-consuming or costly manufacturing tasks overseas due to the less expensive rent, labor, and materials. But continued changes to the operating environment could drive up prices for outsourced services and limit the availability of overseas labor. Additionally, extended delivery times from overseas suppliers can result in the manufacturer carrying high inventory levels to meet production needs.

Production costs can sometimes be sufficiently reduced through automation efforts when processes can be reshored and produced locally.

ROI benefits include:

  • Reduced inventory levels to manage overseas lead times
  • Ability to retain and hire more workers to support reshored work
  • Improved visibility to production process resulting in quality improvements
  • Increased customer satisfaction

4. Competitive Advantage

If you’re an SMM with high-mix, low-volume production, you may think that robotics and automation don’t fit your production model and that you have to look elsewhere for ways to stay competitive. Not so fast!  Advances in robotics, particularly collaborative robots, which often don’t require extensive barriers and can work right alongside your workforce, allow robotics to be more flexible than ever before. Mounting a cobot on a mobile stand can allow you to flex to different operations as your workforce and production needs require.

Being open to addressing your challenges through implementing technology can open doors to competitive advantage — not only from a production and quality standpoint, but also by being a technology-forward organization that can more successfully attract and retain talent.

ROI benefits include:

  • Address production bottlenecks, improving throughput
  • Ability to offer more desirable job opportunities such as engineering programming, management, and equipment maintenance positions
  • Labor and skills gap effectively mitigated by automating high-turnover production tasks

Determining the ROI of an Investment in Robots

Thanks to recent advances in robotic software, sensors, and vision systems, robots now have the potential to deliver true ROI for even the smallest manufacturers. While there is no “one size fits all” robotic solution for SMMs, the potential economic payback of an automation investment is worth considering. Given these potential bottom-line advantages for SMMs, now is the time to consider the business case for integrating robots and cobots for smaller operations.

To learn more about how robots can benefit SMMs, download the “Manufacturer’s Guide to Robotics” from MEP National Network representative Catalyst Connection (part of Pennsylvania MEP), which helps SMMs navigate technological transformation.