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OM in the News: Reshaping Factory Floors with Collaborative Robots

November 12, 2016
Collaborative robots work on parts as employees assemble dishwater racks along an assembly line at a Whirlpool Corp. factory in Findlay, Ohio

Collaborative robots work on parts as employees assemble dishwater racks along an assembly line at a Whirlpool factory in Ohio

Companies around the U.S. are reshaping their factory floors around “collaborative robots” that can stop if a person bumps into them. That precaution allows them to operate in tight spaces with little or no protective boundary. Collaborative robots stack spare tires and apply hot glue inside Chevys and Buicks at the GM plant in Lake Orion, Mich. They help install doors and windshields at BMW ’s plant in Spartanburg, S.C. They smooth riveted parts on 787 jets at a Boeing factory in Australia.

A long-term decline in U.S. factory jobs is due in part to automation. But manufacturers claim the automation trend isn’t intended to cut head count–instead it is aimed at improving safety and increasing productivity. “And as robots help manufacturers increase efficiency, they make U.S. factories more competitive versus countries with cheaper wages,” writes The Wall Street Journal (Nov. 9, 2016). If lower costs leads to more sales, factories could expand and add more of the higher skill jobs that remain.

North American manufacturers installed more than 28,000 robots last year. The market for collaborative robots is expected to grow to more than $1 billion by 2020, up from about $95 million in world-wide sales in 2015.

Universal Robots of Denmark sells one-arm robots for $45,000. The robot can work around the clock, taking the place of workers on 3 shifts. The average production worker makes $36,220 year. Manufacturing executives also say the robots save on materials costs because they apply materials like glue more efficiently. The robots also spare their workers from monotonous, laborious tasks that can cause injuries. Factory workers are the most likely to be injured at work by repetitive motion, and manufacturing ranks high among workplaces for injuries stemming from lifting and lowering.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. What are the advantages of collaborative robots?
  2. What are their limitations?
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