Man vs. Machine: Are Robotics in Manufacturing for Everyone?

In the race for efficiency and innovation, industries worldwide have turned to automation. Robotics, with their promise of precision, speed, and repeatability, have captivated many sectors. This includes aerospace and automotive manufacturing.

There's a general view that industrial automation is the answer to all manufacturing challenges. Given the daily emergence of new technologies, it is easy to comprehend why. However, are robotics suitable for all individuals?  As we will see, the answer is not as simple as it initially appears.

When Robots Aren't the Answer

The disadvantages of robots

Industry giants like Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Boeing, and Tesla have attempted to incorporate high levels of automation into their production lines. The goal of this action was to improve business processes. However, these attempts have sometimes led to unforeseen automation challenges. As well as a reversion to more manpower-reliant processes.

Mercedes-Benz Group withdrew Sindelfingen factory assembly line robots in 2016 due to difficulty meeting rising demands for vehicle customization. Markus Schaefer, then head of production, remarked that humans had to play a more significant part in industrial processes again. Especially to cater to the variety and pace of changes.

Similarly, in 2014, Toyota phased out robotics in key production areas. Emphasising the need for skilled workers to pinpoint problem areas. In both instances, the importance of flexibility and the balance between man and machine were clear.

In aerospace manufacturing, a major setback occurred in the summer of 2019 when Boeing's 777 fuselage production automation system failed. Despite its new approach, the system took too long to set up and was inaccurate. Which, eventually led Boeing to revert to more traditional methods involving human machinists.

Likewise, in April 2018, Tesla's ambitious Model 3 production plan stumbled upon the pitfalls of over-automation. Elon Musk admitted to an over-reliance on a "crazy, complex network of conveyor belts" that slowed down production significantly. Tesla had to re-evaluate its manufacturing strategy, with Musk accepting the need for more human workers in the assembly line.

These cases show that full industrial automation isn't always the golden ticket. Fixed automation systems may be useful for mass production, but they lack the flexibility of human-robot collaborations.

Are Robots Right for Me?

Given these experiences, one might wonder: are robotics the right fit for my production line? The answer lies in the complex balance between human workers and intelligent robots.

When looking into automation, it's important to first look at your current setup and figure out what needs to be done for merging. Consider factors such as the need for product customisation, process flexibility, and production speed.

Mercedes-Benz and Toyota show that technology can make things more efficient, but it can't always handle customization and quick changes. In these cases, a hybrid approach, employing both skilled workers and smaller robotics, could offer the best of both worlds.

Boeing and Tesla's experiences demonstrate the perils of over-automation. It's important to have a structured, thoughtful, and systematic approach to automation. When a complicated process is fully automated, it makes it more likely that problems will come up that were not expected.

Robots can improve efficiency and precision greatly, but they can't replace the problem-solving and flexibility of human workers. Most of the time, the best results come from mixing human knowledge with the efficiency of robots in a way that is specific to the operation.

In conclusion, robots aren't always the solution for every manufacturing application. However, they can undoubtedly play an essential role when employed judiciously and harmoniously. As we advance into the future, finding the right blend of man and machine will remain a critical task.