Illinois small and mid-sized manufacturers will stay globally competitive by investing in modern technology and skillsets. Today’s workforce challenges make the case for technologies like automation almost a necessity. For example: Robots and “Cobots,” or Collaborative Robots, support (but not replace) workers while boosting productivity and efficiency. Data technologies, like artificial Intelligence (AI), can analyze data to make business recommendations. Virtual Reality (VR) is becoming a useful tool to train employees. But while major corporations have been quickly investing in this advanced machinery, smaller manufacturers have moved slower. We will look at why that is, and what can be done to change that.
Why are small manufacturers slow to this technology?
To understand the concerns of manufacturers, IMEC conducted a survey of 247 businesses. Survey questions asked the likelihood that a business will invest in automation, and what challenges they faced in doing so. Results showed 72% of surveyed manufacturers responded they were investing in (or planning to invest in) advanced machinery and processes. But the rollout has been slow, and there are more than a few reasons why:
Cost. When surveyed by IMEC, manufacturers stated that the price was hard to justify.
New machinery is expensive. Return on Investment needs to be properly estimated to get the most out of advanced machinery. A robotic system on a plant floor could cost over $100,000. Robotic systems usually save money in the long-term by improving productivity. However, $100,000 is still a big up-front expense for a smaller business.
Lack of worker skillset. Advanced machinery calls for advanced worker skills.
Even the most advanced robots need human operators. And about half of companies surveyed by IMEC believe their workers do not have the skillsets to operate advanced machines. They would need to start retraining their workers on using new technology, but smaller businesses do not yet have those skills to teach employees.
Lack of information. Manufacturers could use better info on how advanced machinery boosts productivity.
Technologies like automation are complex. IMEC surveys showed that, unsurprisingly, manufacturers who knew the least about automation are less interested in it. Right now, surveyed employers stated they received most of their knowledge on new manufacturing technologies from reading news articles. This is really not enough to teach what advanced machinery is capable of. Informational seminars with external organizations were very helpful in teaching the benefits of advanced machinery.
What can get manufacturers involved?
In 2021, as part of a US Commerce Department Manufacturing Extension Partnership program, IMEC worked to get manufacturers involved with automation and technology. In these projects, IMEC worked with over 150 manufacturers. After some helpful sessions involving Return-on-Investment assessments, technology implementation support, and knowledge-sharing, businesses became interested.
IMEC’s consultation and expertise network turned out helpful for the businesses that were considering new advanced machinery but needed guidance on where to start. One satisfied client wrote “Maxwell Counters realized early on during COVID19 that we needed to implement policies… we were able to automate a couple processes in our commercial department that will reduce defects and increase the time we can spend serving our customers and selling more countertops.”
There are many ways to help ease the transition to advanced machinery. Even incremental investments into advanced machinery and processes have been proven to noticeably boost productivity, efficiencies, and durability. And external expertise can be valuable in figuring out how automation can be used best. The National MEP Network has a strong knowledge base made up of advanced manufacturing technology experts that could be great assets to a business.
Want to learn more about what advanced machinery, like automation, can offer your company? Try getting in contact with IMEC, and we can help you integrate modern industrial tools into your manufacturing business!