When it comes to the value that robots deliver to manufacturing, most people think immediately of the tangible benefits delivered by the large, brightly colored industrial automation which gained popularity in the automotive industry in the 1980’s and 90’s. Things like lower costs, higher quality and fewer worker injuries.
Wait, you say, none of those benefits have anything to do with lowering supply chain risk. You’re right. I’m here to make the case that in today’s model for manufacturing – where a huge reliance on outsourcing to countries with access to low-cost labor has engendered significant supply chain risk, robots can make a difference.
Don’t get me wrong—I am completely aware of how we got here. In my early days at Hewlett-Packard, pursing lower labor costs was an important part of our strategy. For many manufacturers, it started slowly: sourcing parts from off-shore suppliers. Then, came the outsourcing of larger assemblies, culminating in the outsourcing of entire manufacturing operations to countries with access to lower-cost labor.
In a world ripe with unintended consequences, these strategies ushered in new supply chain risks, many of which we still deal with today. Transportation costs are higher. Supply chains are more brittle and less flexible. Designers worry about protecting their IP. And innovation is always harder to cultivate when elements of the product development lifecycle (ideation, design, manufacturing, production and service) are separated geographic and cultural differences.
This is where the new robot—one that’s human-safe, performing human tasks on a human scale—comes into play. These robots are easily integrated into existing manufacturing and distribution operations. They are versatile enough to be packing boxes one week and tending machines the next. Many, commonly referred to as ‘collaborative’ or ‘interactive production’ robots, are remarkably inexpensive—accessible to both large-scale manufacturing enterprises, as well as very small businesses, which until now, could not capitalize on robotic automation.
From a U.S. manufacturing and supply chain perspective, these robots enable business models that manufacturers can use to more effectively compete. And, to my point, these models can lower supply chain risk.
For tasks once considered poor candidates for automation, robots can now be deployed inexpensively, flexibly, and in direct proximity to humans. In this way, this new technology is allowing companies to more cost effectively co-locate design and manufacturing. Lead times between production and consumption are dramatically reduced. Suppliers can be visited more regularly, minimizing the number of catastrophic supply chain problems and saving valuable time in resolving issues. The net result: lower cost, more flexible supply chains that are also less risky.
Supply chain risk is a multi-faceted challenge that has ended many a career. No one solution is going to make these challenges go away. But watch for the newest tool in supply chain risk management in the form of a human-friendly robot. The many benefits they offer may just surprise you.