While many people fret that robots and automation in manufacturing will lead to the loss of jobs, one company found that robots have saved the day in a tight labor market.
Cheer Pack, one of the largest producers of spouted pouches, implemented a team of robots to move materials around in its warehouse operations. To maximize the efficiency of movement, Cheer Pack tied the robots into its IFS ERP system, which acts as the scheduler and dispatcher for the robots.
Job loss to robots is real, but not the whole story
Concerns about robots replacing human workers in manufacturing are not unfounded. Robots and automation have been a part of manufacturing operations for years, and the trend has accelerated. In the recently released report "The Future Of U.S. Jobs, 2032: The Rise Of Human/Machine Teams," Forrester predicted that automation will take away 1.83 million jobs, or 1.1% of the total U.S. workforce, in 2022, and that this will rise to 11.06 million jobs, or almost 7% of the workforce, by 2032.
This may be a conservative prediction. The 2013 study "The Future of Employment" by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne cited by Forrester predicted that almost half of U.S. jobs (47%) could be lost to automation, although it didn't provide a timetable for the losses.
However, the Forrester report also indicated that these job losses will be mitigated to some extent by job growth in professional services and higher-level occupations in the automation economy, as well as in newer economy sectors like renewable energy and smart infrastructure. Forrester predicted that this will result in 9.63 million jobs created by 2032, largely offsetting the losses caused by automation.
For Cheer Pack, the concern is not that robots are taking jobs away, but that today's constrained labor pool is not providing enough workers, according to Alex Ivkovic, CIO at Cheer Pack North America.
Robots deployed to fill labor gap
Cheer Pack manufactures spouted pouches at its facility in West Bridgewater, Mass., which are used in a variety of fluid products, including baby foods and energy drinks, as well as non-food products such as cleaners and hand lotions.
The company's plant in West Bridgewater makes about a billion products per year, and business is increasing, according to Ivkovic. However, production has been hindered by a lack of available labor, which was an issue even before the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent "Great Resignation."
Cheer Pack needed to solve the labor issue and found a significant part of the answer with robots that perform a crucial job in the manufacturing supply chain -- picking materials from the warehouse storage areas and transporting them to the production line.
Ivkovic found automated mobile robots (AMRs) that could do the job from Denmark-based industrial robots firm MIR but then faced another challenge in figuring out how to make the robots work with Cheer Pack's IT systems. He found an answer when he attended a conference from the company's ERP software supplier, IFS.
IFS ERP is the robot dispatcher
Most of the robotic systems that Ivkovic evaluated still needed a human to dispatch and run the robots, but IFS demonstrated a system that fully automated the process from the ERP. It's not new to use robots in manufacturing and warehouses, he said, but it is new to have the ERP system send them without human intervention.
"We were planning on having robots of some kind," Ivkovic said. "But the systems that we were looking at prior to IFS were manual, where someone would have to say to the robots, 'You go here; you go there,' and there would still be people involved as opposed to the completely automatic system we put in with IFS."
The automated robotic picking process is simple, but it relies on the data stored in the IFS ERP system, he said.
The ERP system knows how much material has been issued to each manufacturing machine and how many pieces have been produced, and therefore it knows how much material is left. It also knows how much is necessary for a production run, so if the material needs reach a certain level, the ERP dispatches a robot to fetch the next lot of material from the warehouse.
"Everything is in a certain location in the warehouse; IFS knows where that is and simply sends the robot for the next one," Ivkovic said. "This is called a mission to an IFS bridge that then talks directly to the software that controls the robots."
Robots add efficiency, eliminate human error
With the ERP system running the robots, Cheer Pack is able to eliminate the types of human errors that could be dire for the company.
"[The ERP] is not going to allow you to do something you shouldn't be doing, whereas with a person, they see a card and it looks like the right material, so they grab it and mistakes get made," Ivkovic explained. "For us, that's a really serious issue because we deal with things like [containers for] baby food, and with allergens. If someone uses the wrong pouch for the wrong thing, it could get very ugly."
In addition to reducing mistakes, integrating robots with ERP systems increases efficiency, said Rick Veague, CTO of IFS North America.
A manufacturing operation relies on precise timing, so when manufacturers automate those processes with robots, the robots must become an integral part of the planning and signaling process that keeps the manufacturing process moving, he said. Robots can't be a standalone function.
"Robotics is just another thing to plug into that process so that everything is orchestrated and coordinated and therefore takes latency out of the process," Veague said. "You're not waiting for someone to come around to deliver your raw materials, so you can do the next step in the operation."
Using the robots is also a huge labor cost savings move for Cheer Pack. Ivkovic estimated that the company saves about $1.5 million a year that it would have spent on three or four employees working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The project has already paid back its investment of just under $1 million.
"The robots don't get tired or call in sick," he said.
Alex Ivkovic CIO, Cheer Pack North America
Robots are not going to take away jobs, but they are able to perform tasks that are highly repetitive but mistake-prone for humans, he said.
"Humans are notoriously unreliable for certain kinds of things," Veague said. "Some people are nervous about robotics taking jobs, but in reality today, you can't hire enough people, especially for the kinds of things that robots are really good at, which is really precise work, or highly precise work, which drives humans crazy."
Cheer Pack employees who used to pick and pack materials are now available to do higher-level work, Ivkovic explained.
"People have this fear that their job is going to go away and robots are going to take over, but robots aren't going to take over," he said. "And in reality, dragging carts around a warehouse is not exactly an exciting job, so we can take those people and put them into more fulfilling jobs. Nobody here got laid off or fired because we brought robots in."
Jim O'Donnell is a TechTarget news writer who covers ERP and other enterprise applications for SearchSAP and SearchERP.