Ignore the fearmongers – robots will boost manufacturing jobs in Ireland

Very interesting new article by our colleague Samantha of Universal Robots in the Irish Tech News

‘Ignore the fearmongers – robots will boost manufacturing jobs in Ireland’ – By Samantha Cummins-Byrne, Universal Robots

As Richard Bruton, Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation makes clear in his foreword to the ‘Making it in Ireland: Manufacturing 2020’ report, Ireland is a proud manufacturing nation. The sector contributes 25% of GDP, employs 205,700 people directly and 400,000 people across all skill levels when indirect employment is taken into account.

It may come as a surprise then that Ireland is falling well behind its European counterparts in the automation race. In terms of robot density, Europe has the highest level worldwide, with the manufacturing industry comprising over 105 robots per 10,000 employees. Yet, if we look at Ireland, it has the second lowest density of industrial robots in the EU15. If left unchecked then going forward, this is likely to hinder the country’s ability to maximise productivity and the skills of the workforce that fuels it.

One reason behind this reluctance to adopt the technology may lie with the misguided perception that robots are humanoid monsters, who possess the power to take over the world and replace humans. The truth is, robots are not conscious. Since their conception in 1921, robots were engineered to be a tool to improve everyday tasks and our lives. Take for example a vacuum cleaner. This was created to clean our floors, not to replace the residents that reside within the property.

Robots are used far and wide in our daily lives and when it comes to the manufacturing market, they are instrumental players of the production line. In fact, similar to technical advancements that have come before, jobs evolve to accommodate new technologies. It is well recognised that an electric screwdriver is simply a tool that enables a specific task to be performed faster with the added benefit of reducing injury incurred by repetitive strain.

I believe robots – and collaborative robots (cobots), in particular – should be viewed in the same light. Unlike the generation of industrial robots that came before, cobots offer the flexibility and price point to be a viable solution for companies of all sizes and budgets.

As with any industry, manufacturers, especially SMEs should continue to invest in flexible technologies that can adapt to different tasks. These companies often have limited budgets and require solutions that offer a plethora of capabilities. Cue the cobots – with the capability to seamlessly integrate into existing production lines with minimal disruption, they ensure manufactures can maximise their throughput with very little downtime. Beyond this, their compact size and agile nature means that they can be directly deployed on the factory floor to work alongside the human employees.

These benefits put forward a strong case for cobots and they are gaining ground in more and more industries although, progress is remarkably slow. While companies contemplate the investment, they are missing out on considerable gains. At present, the vast majority of the manufacturing workforce are undergoing repetitive, mundane or dangerous tasks. Yes, these specific tasks will be automated but that doesn’t mean employees are no longer needed. It simply means their roles evolve as they are freed up to add greater value elsewhere in the production process.

One such company that has witnessed this is FT-Produktion, a Swedish supplier of machinery to a vast gamut of sectors including automotive, construction and furniture. Since introducing its cobot in-house, the company has cited an improved response rate to customer demands as well as vast production efficiencies. In fact, the company saves 500 hours when manufacturing a series of 150,000 parts. Nobody has lost their job. In fact, it has helped the company to expand its production despite labour shortages that would otherwise have curtailed its growth.

Cobots are engineered to carry out monotonous tasks, allowing the human workforce to redeploy their time and energy on solving problems that require expertise or creativity. Copious valuable knowledge can be obtained on the factory floor and utilised to further enhance operations or expand profit margins. Moreover, cobots can be left unsupervised and run for longer periods of time, without affecting the costs. In fact, automation allows the output per worker to significantly increase.

At present, Irish manufacturers are facing many challenges including an aging population and the uncertainty around Brexit which brings with it the concern of labour shortages. Cobots can solve these concerns head on by enhancing business competitiveness, boosting productivity as well as increasing response rates to commercial opportunities.
In my opinion, we shouldn’t be concerned about how many robots Ireland has, but how few. That could truly be the limiting factor on our future economic growth.

Samantha Cummins Byrne has almost 15 years of experience in the field of robotics under her belt. She joined Universal Robots in May 2018 and has overseen an increase in sales of cobots in Ireland.

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