WHITE CITY — Manufacturers plagued by rising labor costs or having difficulty in filling positions might take a look at robots.
Collaborative robots can perform menial, repetitive and even undesirable tasks, allowing employees to tackle more promising roles.
Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership ran an articulated robot through its paces Friday morning during the Southern Oregon Manufacturing Summit at Rogue Community College.
Robots may be particularly desirable if a labor shortage makes it hard to keep a position filled or repetitive motion leads to worker compensation claims, said Matt Karabin of Olympus Controls in Tualatin.
“If you have an operator trying to drive screws into a product, typically it’s an awkward motion,” Karabin said during a breakout session. “They’re just doing the same motion all day, not very conducive for humans to do. So it’s perfect for a robot, then you can free up the labor to do something potentially that’s higher skilled, takes a little more thought to accomplish.”
Karabin defined collaborative robots, or cobots, as a robot intended to interact with humans in a shared workspace. They’re safe to work with, easily programmed, easy to set up and can be redeployed to other tasks. In some cases, the robot interacts with humans, finishing off a process.
“With traditional industrial robots, you typically see a lot of caging and there is additional safety equipment,” Karabin said. “But these are kind of free-range robots; you don’t have them locked in a pen.”
Programming is similar to that of an iPhone.
“It’s easy to pick up,” he said. “You don’t need to go to a two-week training class or be a degreed engineer to understand how to program these. We’ve had small children come up and program the robot.”
While many people think of automobile plants when they think of robotics, the possibilities are far greater.
“There are a lot of fun applications,” said Karabin, as a video showing a robot picking leaves off a head of lettuce played in the background. “Not just the heavy, dirty applications.”
As consumer demand for unique, customized products rises manufacturers can turn to robots to keep pace, said Justin Gradek, an OMEP consultant.
“We want to be able to tool our factories in the future to be quickly re-deployable,” he said. “So if we’re going to be making a bunch of types of different products, high mix-low volume, we want to redeploy our robots to match that business model.”
Gradek said the influence of Amazon, where consumers expect delivery within two days, adds to the importance of having factories closer to the end user.
The demonstration robot costs $54,325, including shipping, accessories, and programming. The payback period varies, but a laborer earning $16.79 hourly — which rises to $22.09 with benefits and taxes — costs an employer $45,947 a year. Using the robot to stack products onto a pallet for two shifts would take just over seven months to recoup the cost.
The national unemployment figure is at 3.7 percent, making hiring tough for employers and adding to the workload for employees.
Gradek suggested robots can fill the gap.
“They show up on time,” Gradek said. “They will always work late, they always pass the drug test, you will always get them to do what you want, as long as you can program that.”
The event, sponsored by Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc., also featured a presentation on rapid prototyping by Vince Anewenter from University of Milwaukee School of Engineering; the implications of the Supreme Court’s Wayfair decision dealing with Internet sales, and the human elements of technology.