Should You Invest in Robotic Manufacturing In Tough Times?

Clock Ticking

Is now the right time to think about investing in a robot?

What are other manufacturers doing?

Many people are unsure of what to do right now and concerned about the future of manufacturing.

But, those businesses who already use automation are now in a great position to benefit from their investments. The rest of us now just have to ask ourselves: Is now the right time to catch up?

Choosing whether or not to invest in new technology is never an easy decision. Most of us have been burned in the past by buying the wrong technology at the wrong time. We don’t want to get burned again so we are, understandably, wary about any new technology proposals.

Robotics is one of those technologies which has long been on many manufacturers’ “one day” list. This is the list of ideas and projects that you know will have a positive impact on your business but you’re not sure if now is the right time.

As I write this, we are in the middle of the global COVID-19 crisis. Many businesses are concerned about the long-term economic impacts of the situation. Their new orders have slowed to a halt, cash-flows are tightening, and most of their workforce are forced to work from home.

When times are tough, not many people are thinking about robotics.

But, maybe we should be.

As IndustryWeek commented recently the current crisis could lead to a new “robotic norm” in manufacturing. Now, more than ever, robots give us more than just a competitive edge… they can help us to survive.

Is Now the Time to Slash New Technology Initiatives?

When the situation changes drastically, many of us rush to cut back our operations. We go into “survival mode,” where we try to ruthlessly minimize the impact of the current difficult situation on our business.

We look at our new technology initiatives — such as adding a robot to our business — and we think “I can’t deal with this right now. I’ll wait until this hard time has passed then think about it again.”

This is our natural reaction, but it’s not usually the right strategy in a crisis. This type of thinking makes us fixate on short-term firefighting instead of helping us to plan how we can succeed long-term.

But, how can we think about the long-term when we don’t know what’s coming up ahead?

How can we think about the future when our present is so uncertain?

How do we even know if robotics is a good decision right now?

Why Manufacturers With Robots Will Come Out Ahead

As consulting firm McKinsey explains, the best strategy during an unexpected change is to maintain the long view.

Manufacturers who use this current opportunity to improve their operations for long-term growth will be in a much better position than those who wait until it “all blows over.”

Strategic investment in technology is a solid way to obtain that long-term view. Research into the 2007 global financial crisis found that many of the worst-affected companies increased their technology spending to help to accelerate them out of the crisis.

Robotics and automation are a proven technology for improving the long-term viability of your operations. They provide a means to increase the efficiency of your operation and make the best use of the resources that you have available to you.

As experts from The Brookings Institution explain “all economic downturns increase automation.” Many manufacturers will already be looking into how they can make better use of robotics to accelerate through the crisis.

If we want our manufacturing businesses to succeed, we need to seriously consider robotics and automation… or risk being left behind.

Competitive Benefits of Robotics In This New World

So, why is there such a strong business case for robotics in this new world?

Robots already provide a competitive edge, even when everything in the world and our business is running smoothly. But, here are some key competitive benefits to using robots right now, in light of the current situation:

Local Production

One of the great lessons from the recent coronavirus pandemic is the realization that supply chains are fragile. It only takes one link in the chain to stop its production and the entire system grinds to a halt.

For years, many aspects of manufacturing in Western countries has been moved offshore, particularly to countries in South-East Asia. When shipping is halted, as it has been recently, our manufacturing has to stop.

Robots are a great way to move to manufacture locally. This helps to reduce supply chain problems and also has sustainability benefits.

Automate the Unnecessary

When times are good, we can handle a bit of inefficiency in our business. Things don’t run as smoothly as they could but we’ve got the resources and capacity necessary to deal with it.

This inefficiency is not an option in challenging times like this.

Robots allow us to be laser-focused about our core competencies. Tasks which are necessary but do not add value to our products can usually be automated, leaving you and your team more time to focus on the most important tasks.

Work from Home

One unique impact of the recent situation is that many people are forced to work from home to comply with social-distancing measures. This presents a challenge for those businesses that are reliant on people being in the building, like manufacturing.

Using robots allows us to keep production running even with fewer on-site workers. Those team members who are working from home can focus on tasks which still add value but do not require you to be on-site, like designing products or programming the robot with offline programming software.

Now Is the Time Get Started Thinking About Robots

Even if it feels like now is only the time for short-time firefighting, resist the temptation to do so. This is the perfect opportunity to take a long-term view and think about how robots could help to grow your business to accelerate through the crisis.

Take a bit of time to consider which aspects of your operation could be automated and what the impact would be on your business.

Even if you decide not to go ahead with robots at this exact moment, you will be in a much better situation to react quickly when the opportunity is right for you.

Do you think robotics could help you accelerate through the crisis? Tell us in the comments below or join the discussion on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or in the RoboDK Forum.

Alex Owen-Hill

About Alex Owen-Hill

Alex Owen-Hill is a freelance writer and public speaker who blogs about a large range of topics, including science, presentation skills at CreateClarifyArticulate.com, storytelling and (of course) robotics. He completed a PhD in Telerobotics from Universidad Politecnica de Madrid as part of the PURESAFE project, in collaboration with CERN. As a recovering academic, he maintains a firm foot in the robotics world by blogging about industrial robotics.

View all posts by Alex Owen-Hill

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