Short on Workers? Maybe Your Next New Hire Should be a Cobot

Manufacturing is facing a workforce shortage that impacts productivity and profitability. Here’s how automation can help turn things around.


cobot operating a CNC machine

Like many industries in the US at this time, manufacturing is facing a workforce shortage. There are multiple causes, ranging from hesitation to return to work due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to aging Baby Boomers retiring. Recent statistics illustrate the problem:

  • According to the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) third quarter (2021) survey, one of the biggest challenges is “the inability to attract and retain a quality workforce.” And 81.5 percent of survey respondents cite shortages as their top downside risk.

  • The most recent Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows approximately 1 million openings in manufacturing as of October 2021.

  • Research by the Manufacturing Institute found that 97 percent of survey respondents report being aware of the issue, and 78 percent indicate that they are very or somewhat concerned about this change.

  • The manufacturing workforce is also aging. The median age of manufacturing workers in 2020 was just over 44 years old, according to BLS data.

This blog examines the impact of the workforce shortage in manufacturing and one of the possible solutions: robotic automation, specifically with collaborative robots.


What Costs are Associated with the Manufacturing Workforce Shortage?


Not having enough employees on hand eats into your profitability in several ways:

  • Time and money diverted to recruiting, hiring, and onboarding.

  • Time for new hires to get up to speed with your processes and equipment.

  • Time devoted to reskilling existing employees to take up the slack.

  • Dips in productivity and risking missed deadlines.

  • Reduced employee morale and/or retention.

Another major issue is the loss of new business opportunities. NAM’s past surveys have found that companies are often unable to pursue opportunities because they would not have enough workers to ramp up or change production successfully.


Efforts are underway to educate a new generation about modern manufacturing. Programs like NAM’s National Manufacturing Day (October 1) and Creators Wanted, as well as summer camp programs from the Nuts, Bolts, and Thingamajigs Foundation target young people around the country. Despite this proactive approach, it currently remains a challenge to fill jobs and to encourage workers to postpone retirement. The bottom line is it simply takes time to develop a skilled workforce to fill the gaps.


Automation Eases Workforce Challenges


OB7 cobot working with an employee

What can companies do right now? Investing in automation and collaborative robots, or "cobots", is a big step toward solving the problem. If you’re new to automation, it can be overwhelming to consider the options.


This can apply to unfilled jobs, injury or error-prone tasks, quality issues, tasks you want to analyze more closely with computerized tools (such as a cobot with onboard sensors and tracking software).


A great example of this is automating CNC machines.


The Role of a CNC Machinist


Operating a CNC machine is a skilled trade. Machinists must learn to load blanks, check the machine’s parameters, inspect completed parts, troubleshoot errors, and even make adjustments to the machine’s program as necessary. It takes years to learn the ins and outs of running CNC machines.


The job of a CNC machinist is highly skillful, however some of the tasks they are responsible for require less skill and more repetitive movements. Instead of taking up a skilled operator’s time, or hiring another worker specifically for these tasks, a cobot can be responsible for the repetitive, mundane tasks that do not require a high level of human skill.


How a Cobot can Help with Workforce Shortfalls


Cobots like the OB7 from Productive Robotics are designed for CNC machine tending because of their ease of use, flexibility, and cost-effectiveness. OB7 cobots are easy to install and set up. They quickly learn how to do CNC machine tending tasks because operators and machinists “teach” the arm by guiding it through the motions (no programming required).


With a cobot on board, you can:

  • Staff dull, repetitive jobs that are hard to fill and keep filled.

  • Fill in gaps at different machines on a regular rotation or even by the shift as needed.

  • Help older workers stay on the job longer by reducing their work's physical demand.

  • Strategically redeploy employees to higher-skilled or manual tasks, including:

  • Welding, detailed finishing processes, etc.

  • Metrology

  • Fixturing

  • Quality inspection

  • Troubleshooting

  • CNC programming with G Code or other proprietary languages

  • Operate during off hours to boost productivity or take on new opportunities without hiring more workers.

Another important consideration is worker safety and ergonomics, which contribute to morale and retention. According to studies by Traveler's Insurance, manufacturing automation can reduce or mitigate many causes of workplace injuries, including contact with harmful objects, heavy lifting, and repetitive stress injuries.


Which CNC Machines can be Automated?


CNC machine tending is a cost-effective way to integrate automation into your operations. Because the tasks involved with machine tending typically include the same steps (e.g., open and close machine doors, load and unload parts, press buttons, transfer raw materials and finished parts to trays), a cobot can be used for most applications including:

  • Mills

  • Lathes

  • Routers

  • Plasma cutters

  • EDM machines