The manufacturing sector, from engineering all the way to food and beverage production, has been facing an uphill challenge to keep pace with technological innovation among the backdrop of skills shortages and rising inflation.
External pressures have created fear among decision-makers as they strive to ensure the high throughput of goods into the supply chain and onto the shelves for end consumers. To add greater complexity, sustainability is becoming ever more important for organisations as countries come together to devise net zero targets. With such a wide range of hurdles to traverse, how can manufacturing move into the modern era?
Just as the manufacturing sector had adapted to Brexit red tape and Covid-related concerns, 2022 saw a huge rise in prices for goods and services as high inflation took hold. Inflation in the UK reached a record 11.1% in October. Not only did this force organisations to cut their budgets and search for cheaper suppliers and partners, but it even had a detrimental impact on sustainability. According to research undertaken by Visual Components last year, over two-thirds (70%) of UK-based organisations said that investment had to be refocused elsewhere due to challenging economic factors.
As the cost of maintaining operations on a global scale escalated and it became more expensive to transport goods across long distances, over a third (36%) of UK manufacturers devised plans to reshore their operations back to the country of origin. It’s a strategy that manufacturers have understandably prioritised as inflation continues to remain high, despite signs of this figure beginning to ease. However, how are they currently dealing with the issues happening within their own factories?
Emerging applications and skills shortfalls
While an economic storm continues to ensure that manufacturers traverse rocky waters as they search for ways to maintain and modernise their factory operations, skills shortages continue to make their mark on the sector. After all, if more operations are being brought back to the factory of origin, who is in place to oversee and manage these workloads? According to Make UK, 36% of vacancies in the industry are proving difficult to fill as applications fail to have the skills, qualifications or necessary experience needed.
As a result, manufacturers are not just allocating more money and time to the effort of finding the right talent, but are then applying too few skilled individuals on to a range of new manufacturing applications.
Many have brought in robots, or collaborative robots (cobots), to replace legacy equipment and complete welding, cutting and assembling processes automatically to support humans. But manually programming the technology to provide this benefit takes time. So long in fact, that it can be weeks before a robot is up and running. Add a range of different robot brands to the mix, and the human workload can actually worsen.
Technology is the solution
To move manufacturing into the modern era, alongside driving down costs, supporting humans and integrating sustainable strategies, organisations must adopt supporting technology. For example, rather than force workers to test and train robotic applications on the physical factory floor, offline programming software (OLP) can devise a highly accurate virtual model of the robot and work cell and replicate its movements and workflows via simulation.
In a risk-free sandbox environment where unlimited mistakes can be made, engineers can evaluate trade-offs and make decisions that prove best value to the business. Designs can be fully validated before deployment and established accuracy and consistency ensures repeatable levels of quality. Concurrent programming, rather than sequential, means much less time is spent on preparation before the production launch of a new item.
Engineers can avoid the risk of any accidents or injuries by completing robot programming from any location, away from physical machinery. Giving engineers the tools to complete these tasks remotely is also beneficial to sustainability. Carbon emissions can be lessened by the reduced need to travel to sites, with staff also able to collaborate in real-time from wherever they are.
A fear among some of those in the industry is that humans will become obsolete as robots and automation technologies take over tasks in the factory environment. In reality, these innovations are actually helping to upskill people in using new solutions and plug the talent gap. Intuitive, plug-and-play components can help train employees in how to effectively test factory floor deployments and drive efficiencies.
A look to the future
As challenges continue to affect the sector from all sides, the right technology can enable innovative strategies while ensuring that humans remain central to manufacturing operations. It’s now essential that supporting solutions such as simulation software are integrated more widely at the educational level to help build the skills of students before they enter the workplace. Younger workers are also accustomed to using the latest technologies on a daily basis. Over the next few years, robot deployments are likely to proliferate as technology becomes more sophisticated, and relevant platforms will help humans leverage them in the modern era.
by Mikko Urho, CEO, Visual Components