The Rise of the Cobots—Friends, Not Foes, in Today’s Manufacturing Landscape

Cobots—robots that physically interact with humans in a shared workspace—first appeared on factory floors two years ago. These robotic partners were hailed as ‘the future of work’, particularly in the manufacturing sector, but concerns about widespread robotic implementation are rife. Figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in March claim that 1.5 million people in England alone are at risk of losing their jobs to automation, suggesting that these fears are justified.

However, automation can actually help manufacturers thrive and survive many of the workforce challenges they currently face. These include the ‘crippling skills shortage’, which continues to blight the industry, and is putting workforces under increased pressure. At the same time, tougher immigration rules, associated with the UK’s imminent departure from the EU, means that working in the UK will become less attractive or accessible for foreign nationals. This will force manufacturers to recruit from an increasingly diminishing talent pool.

Cobots could help stem this tide—improving current employees’ job satisfaction and encouraging new talent into the sector.

Robot co-workers can also help relieve a strained workforce from manual or difficult tasks—freeing up human workers to undertake the more creative, or profit-driving, aspects of their roles. Using this new-found time, staff are able to focus on new ideas, innovations and higher-value work for the business—including business strategy, advanced analysis, and creative thinking. More time spent on these tasks will help boost revenues, enabling companies to invest further in employees so that additional business benefits can be realised.

To ensure people areready and willing to embrace robot co-workers, it’s crucial that management make staff feel like they have a personal and professional stake in the changes being made. Helping employees understand the reason for a business’s investment will make it easier to overcome any potential resistance to new processes. Once they have buy-in, manufacturers then need to help their workforces digitally upskill, in order to pave the way for modernised business operations.

This additional training should be seen as a benefit, rather than burden, by workers—as it will provide new skills, and thus offer staff new opportunities to progress. Employees that want to move up the corporate ladder will need to increase their own data skills and ensure they can survive—and thrive—in a data-led workplace, given that many of us will work with algorithmsin the future.

To effectively embrace and integrate cobots into the workforce, appropriate preparations will be essential. Manufacturers must first ensure they have an up-to-date IT infrastructure in place to underpin this new technology. In addition, solutions such as modern enterprise resource planning (ERP) software will be crucial to coordinating robot workflows and enabling effective data sharing between machines and humans across multiple digital platforms.

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