“Rent-A-Robot” is a game-changer for manufacturing

The soil at the Northeast Ohio Chemical Plant has been roughly the same for decades. Like soldiers in training, containers roll off the assembly line, ranging from small bottles to 5-gallon carboys, and workers move them to carts and boxes as quickly as humanly possible.

It’s monotonous work at best, and it can be grueling when 40-pound jugs come off the line. But soon, a new member of the team is ready to shake things up and hopefully make things better.

This team member is a collaborative robot, or cobot, designed to empower human workers to take on more valuable tasks. For years, cobots have been shown to make manufacturing processes faster and more efficient, but Studies show that less than 10% of manufacturers use them. Among those who did not use cobots was the chemical company mentioned above, which initially was not inclined to bet big on new technologies when the status quo was more than sufficient. This is why a model of “rent a robot”, which is gaining ground across the country– made so much sense.

“Given today’s increasingly tight labor market, more manufacturers should explore these models,” said Mike O’Donnell, my colleague and vice president of MAGNET, who has worked with the chemical company mentioned above. “As the industrial ecosystem adjusts to the labor shortage, companies placing orders will seek manufacturers with human-robot integration as the best way to speed up production. “

Beyond that, there are relatively few risks associated with leasing robots, and the underlying technology has made significant strides in recent years.

Why renting offers flexibility

Over the years, the owners of the chemical business have grown their business from a regional player in the Midwest to a national operation, with more than 200 employees and a loyal customer base. Incomes were good, but margins were tightening and staffing was becoming increasingly difficult.

To continue to succeed at a high level in the face of increasing global competition and a shrinking workforce, business leaders felt that something had to change. This is what first interested them in robotics and automation and ultimately the robot rental model. Vendors, some backed by venture capitalists, lease robots to SMEs, install and maintain them, and bill by the hour or month.

Without the initial investment, much of the financial risk is removed, with the potential for immediate savings through improved efficiency. Leasing offers flexibility (financial and operational) that wouldn’t exist if manufacturers bought robots or spent time and money developing their own. The model also puts pressure on the lessor to make sure their products work in the factory. Businesses can test out the latest technology without being married to it and send it back if it doesn’t meet their expectations or goals. On the other hand, if things are going really well, there is often a lease-to-own option.

Advances in technology have made robots smarter, faster and cheaper

Thanks to technology, robots have become easier to integrate into factories, capable of more advanced tasks and less expensive to produce, which supports the viability of the emerging trend of renting a robot.

A McKinsey to study found that the average robot price has “halved in real terms, and even more relative to labor costs” over the past decades. At the same time, advancements in software development, computing power, and networking technologies have reduced the cost of installing and maintaining these machines. For example, new plug-and-play technologies can connect various components using network cabling easier than ever. And automated sensors can help collect data for maintenance and aid improvement and troubleshooting efforts.

In addition, today’s robots—fed through machine vision, AI, and deep reinforcement learning – offer manufacturers new capabilities that can improve efficiency and further reduce costs. Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGVs) can now coordinate to move materials, such as those on the chemical plant assembly line, from one location to another, ensuring that every machine is assigned to the correct route, no does not collide with other machines and remains charged throughout.

Help SMEs overcome their concerns

Some critics might point the finger at so-called robot cemeteries – collections of machines that did not pay dividends in the past and are now gathering dust in factories. This is a mistake given how far technology has come and the obvious benefits of leasing. But renting robots – and getting them to work for you – isn’t without challenges, including how to pay for the technology.

Of course, it’s not all about the money. The executives of the aforementioned chemical company, for example, had a multistate operation to run: orders to fill, people to hire, potential customers to host, reports to complete, and many issues to deal with. without creating new ones. They simply did not have the time to develop their own robot systems or explore the options for obtaining them from an outside supplier. My organization, one of many regional manufacturing expansion partnerships across the country, has helped them find suppliers, make presentations, and even iron out terms of the deal.

“It’s important that organizations like ours fulfill this role and that businesses seek this kind of assistance,” said O’Donnell. “It can be intimidating to take the first step if you’re a company that has been doing things the same way – and being successful – for years or decades. So working with a third party that you can trust to fill in some of the blanks can really make a difference.

These early robot rental offers can be relatively small, often just one robot to start. But they can be an important first step towards increasing efficiency and competitiveness in the short term and towards building confidence in automation as new technologies emerge. The technology is also expected to be implemented in tandem with higher wages. Smart manufacturing roles To pay an average of $ 12,000 more per year than more traditional manufacturing jobs.

Robots won’t and shouldn’t completely replace humans in factories, but they make operations more efficient, which in turn helps justify the higher wages and training costs needed to stay competitive. This is important in addressing the turnover and job changes that plague most businesses across the country, foremost among manufacturers.

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