My biggest surprise at the International Woodworking Fair (IWF) in Atlanta this summer was the number of robots being showcased. Not only from the major machinery vendors, but also from smaller and more specific applications.
We’ve been seeing more and more robotic applications and the shops that are investing in these technologies are getting smaller and smaller. Seems like a robotic cell is the new nesting CNC machine. It’s like what nested CNCs were 10-15 years ago. It appears that automating redundant tasks is no longer a luxury for the large shops, but a necessity to stay alive in the woodworking business.
There’s no question the shortage or labour in the shop is a major issue.
Shops owners are forced to automate to keep production going. It doesn’t help that all industries are facing labour shortages. Employees have many choices when it comes to earning a living. All of the less attractive positions are hard to fill. From fast food restaurants to manufacturing, the unfulfilling jobs are left vacant. Employees have the pick of positions that resonate with them, and they no longer must take what they can get. They can now get what they want, a job that is exciting and rewarding.
So are the robots here to replace humans? Not really. Yes, they are doing tasks that once were done by humans, but humans no longer want to do these tasks. Heavy lifting and repetitive work gets old. Automating these tasks fills the void that was once occupied by employees happy to just be working.
The most common application is definitely material and part handling. Gone are the days when a human would be happy to be lifting sheets on to a machine eight hours a day. These people are few and far between. Not only have CNC machines evolved to offer loading, unloading and labelling options, but the robots have taken the automation even further by off-loading parts, performing secondary machining such as doweling and even sorting the parts for the people downstream to have an easier job carrying out the remaining tasks.
The evolution of RFID labels is opening up even more possibilities in the manufacturing process to make the people who work in the shop happier. Clearer instructions on what to do and how to do it are making it simpler and faster and reducing mistakes.
As automated machines and robots do more tasks on the shop floor, the crucial emphasis needs to be on the people working in the office. These are the people and the systems that will feed the information to the automated equipment on the shop floor. You can have the best of the best when it comes to equipment, but if you have poor quality software or people in the front office, you’ll get mediocre efficiency in the shop at best.
Robots and machines can do the things, but they need clear instructions on what and how to do them. You can have the fastest car in the world, but if you have the least skilled driver, you’ll be hard-pressed to win a race. The value of the work done in the front office is critical to the efficiency of the machines and work done in the shop.
My advice is to seek out the best and most powerful applications that will give you the most opportunities to optimize your production. This must be coupled with great people using these applications and continuous training for them. Technology is not a set it and forget it type thing. It’s ever changing and evolving. Your people need to continuously learn and grow in order to continue to move forward. Learning is tiring sometimes, but no growth happens without it.