Reshoring and Automation: Where Do Cobots Fit in?

Reshoring and Automation: Where Do Cobots Fit in?

For North American businesses of all types, especially those in the manufacturing sector, 2022 was anything but typical. Or boring. Or easy. “Labor shortages” and “supply chain issues” became go-to phrases that encapsulated the most significant challenges for industry, continuing well into 2023. 

The good news? Supply chain issues are improving monthly, and inflation has dropped by more than 50% from its peak. Additionally, reshoring initiatives are gaining ground around North America as businesses and policy makers at the state and federal levels recognize the importance of having a strong domestic manufacturing sector.

In fact, 62% of manufacturers surveyed in a Deloitte poll in November 2022 had already started reshoring or nearshoring their production capacities. Survey respondents were 305 executives at transport and manufacturing firms, mostly in the U.S., with annual revenue of $500 million to more than $50 billion.

Subsidies from the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS Act, and capital loan programs provided by the U.S. Small Business Administration give manufacturers more good reasons to embrace reshoring strategies. In short, the outlook for the manufacturing sector looks strong, despite the headwinds. Now we just need to find the labor to handle all this.

Fillng the Labor Gap

Automation is a key element of America’s manufacturing resilience today and will be in the future. Industrial robots can plug labor gaps and support reshoring efforts. However, traditional industrial automation is frequently too complex and costly for many applications, leaving companies of all sizes–with tasks that need to be completed and no workers or automation available to take the work on.

Take for example Wisconsin-based Processed Metal Innovators (PMI), a metal fabricator that produces hundreds of different stamped and welded metal parts. Erik Larson, vice president of operations at PMI, was tired of turning business away. With the labor shortage in Wisconsin making it tough to hire certified welders and with traditional robotic welders not feasible for high mix/low volume production, Larson needed another option.

The company employs seven welders, but for some jobs needed nine or 10. Having added cobots to the mix, Larson was able to grow the business to where he’s now able to take on the work of 30 welders.

Traditional industrial automation isn’t always well-suited to the versatile product mix that is becoming increasingly typical of many manufacturers’ operations. It often takes too long to reconfigure traditional automation to handle high mix/low volume operations and to add new product lines.

For mass production and applications involving heavy duty payloads such as aircraft fuselages, traditional industrial robots shine. However, agile manufacturers need automation that’s flexible enough to handle a wide range of tasks and products and is also quick and easy to deploy. This is where collaborative robot (‘cobot’) solutions come in.

Cobots can address labor gaps and support reshoring efforts, just like their traditional industrial robot counterparts, but they do so with less cost and complexity. This is one of the reasons why cobots are the fastest-growing segment of the industrial automation sector. Additionally, after completing a risk assessment, cobots’ built-in safety features may even enable them to work “cage free.” This means that the robot can be deployed close to humans and it allows manufacturers to create flexible production lines that can handle rapid switches to new products and product customizations. At PMI, Larson is no longer turning business way but can handle it with cobots now performing many of the repetitive welds: “With cobots, we can go out there and quote work we haven’t been able to quote before, because we know by the time we accept the purchase order, we can get a cobot in here and ready to weld the parts,” he says.

Adoption of cobot technology is on the rise—with more than 20% year-over-year growth forecasted through 2026 by market intelligence firm Interact Analysis—driven by North American industry’s urgent requirement for flexible, affordable automation.

The Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute–a Manufacturing Innovation Institute funded by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and part of the Manufacturing USA network—counts reshoring and the development of flexible industrial automation systems among its most important goals. Much of the research funded by ARM uses cobots as part of the solution–a recognition on ARM’s part that manufacturers are increasingly looking to collaborative automation to address their current and future production concerns.

New Cobot Frontiers Cobots provide a platform that enables innovative manufacturing applications, much of it driven by collaboration between customers, integrators and third-party hardware and software developers. For example, Andrew Pearce Bowls, a small Vermont-based company specializing in hand-crafted kitchen products deployed a cobot on a unique sanding application that automates the entire polishing cycle on wooden cutting boards. The company discovered cobots through an integrator, chose specialist sanding hardware and software from a certified third-party supplier –and built the fixturing that the cobot uses to change sandpaper in-house. ROI was achieved in eight weeks.

Some handling applications demand extremely high repeatability, which often means updating the robot’s moves every time it’s transported between workstations. Presented with this problem in an environment where .5mm accuracy is required, AIM Processing, a Colorado-based injection molder deployed a third-party hardware/software solution that features a locking mechanism with a relative offset. ROI was achieved in less than 15 weeks.

Meanwhile, by leveraging their cobot’s scripting capabilities and third-party simulation software, Go Fast Campers, a small manufacturer of customized, lightweight pop-up truck campers in Bozeman, Montana, developed a programming approach that allows any cell to make any part within a maximum cell volume using any standard stock size. The company has since deployed a line of four cobots on machine-tending applications, all of them incorporating this customer-built software innovation. 

And welding applications once considered too heavy-duty for collaborative automation are also taking off. Cobot-based complex TIG welding tasks, for example, are now firmly within the cobot domain, as one Ohio-based sheet metal manufacturer discovered when an integrator demonstrated the capabilities of a specialist third-party MIG and TIG welding solution. The deployment increased welding production at the company by 200% and boosted machine tending productivity by 600%.

Cobots are not a panacea for every challenge. There will always be applications where the payload is simply too large or the reach requirements too much for a typical cobot to handle, but for all the rest, there is a compelling case to be made that cobots are a match for today’s challenging manufacturing landscape.

Bryan Bird is regional president of Americas, Universal Robots