The UK is facing a labour shortage that is causing anxiety throughout the manufacturing industry. Currently, the UK is heavily reliant on migrant labour and, with Brexit on the way, businesses need a backup plan to ensure that they can continue to operate. Automation, and especially cobots, can fill the inevitable labour gap as they can be easily programmed to perform repetitive but necessary tasks and can be deployed quickly and safely alongside existing workers. It can address immediate labour shortages and help with retention by enabling employees to take on more valuable and fulfilling activities. This is especially true in the case of collaborative robot (cobots) which are designed to work alongside humans rather than replace them. However, when a business looks to automate with robots many different aspects must be considered in order to build a solid business case and understand the true value of robotic automation.

In order to analyse the Return on Investment (ROI), many businesses look only at the payback period, which is traditionally calculated by taking the cost of the robot and then dividing it by the monthly salary of the worker. However, if this is your sole strategy of developing ROI breakdown, then you will be excluding multiple other factors that add to the total value and impact that robotic automation will have on your business. ROI shouldn’t be based purely on finances. Other elements, including employee benefits, increased efficiency and stability of products needs to be assessed alongside the total robot investment.

Of course, the first step of calculating ROI will always be to start with the initial cost and the payback period, but then a business must look beyond the short-term and consider the long-term benefits that they will receive from investing in this type of automation.

Looking at the Big Picture Investment

To calculate your total robot investment, you must include the initial investment but then also factor in for additional system accessories and integration charges that may incur. For example, employing a cobot to undertake a pick and place job would require additional investment in the right model of gripper and a sensor to ensure precision, as well as the cobot arm.

Businesses must think about which type of robot best suits their existing working environment, but can also be integrated with minimal disruption to reduce the amount of downtime. As well as this, future maintenance costs, software upgrades, feature add-ons and whether or not a particular robot can be easily redeployed within the business to meet changing needs of production must also be considered. For example, industrial robots require large amounts of space as they have to be locked behind safety cages, their heavy and fast movements making them unsafe for human interaction. It’s for this reason that many SMEs are reluctant to invest in traditional industrial robots as they require a large amount of shop floor space that small businesses cannot afford to spare. As well as this, industrial robots are complex to install and have a large upfront cost.

Deploying a collaborative robot, however, means the integration costs will be minimal. Cobots are safe to work around and in the majority of cases have no need for safety guarding, ensuring that they have a small physical footprint. Their lightweight frame means that they can easily be moved around the factory site on a trolley and redeployed to carry out different tasks. The intuitive simple touch-screen interface ensures that the cobot can be programmed for secondary tasks in no time at all. Due to the ease of programming and simple online courses, existing employees can be upskilled to become the resident cobot programmer for small adaptations to their operation and use.

Protecting and Upskilling Your Existing Workforce

Automating dangerous and repetitive tasks with cobots can also improve the health wellbeing and safety of your existing employees. Occupational health and safety issues (OH&S) in relation to manual handling processes are all too common, particularly musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). With the integration of collaborative robots, these problems can be significantly reduced because workers can be freed up to work on less laborious and repetitive tasks and moved onto higher value roles within a business.

Automation will keep employees safe particularly if you adopt collaborative robots, which are ergonomic and have the ability to work alongside humans safely and effectively. Therefore, by automating a particular process in your production process you could save huge amounts on social costs, health and medical benefits, as well as insurance related expenses due to an introduction of safer work practices.

Collaborative robot technology can be set up easily, programmed, reprogrammed and integrated into a business by virtually anyone; in Denmark, cobot programming is even taught in schools. This means that businesses don’t have to employ specially trained engineers or technicians to integrate and maintain the robot, so will save money and time on recruitment and training processes. However, this shouldn’t scare people into thinking robots are going to steal their jobs. When the computer replaced the typewriter, it revolutionised the workplace but it didn’t negate the need for receptionists, assistants or other office workers. Instead, the definition of the worker’s responsibilities evolved, allowing them to dedicate more brainpower to other more complex tasks. This is the same for the robot revolution – it will redefine the way we work but there will always be a need for employees on the factory floor. People must remember that in the long run, automation will allow humans to have the capacity to deal with more complex jobs and acquire new skills that require human brainpower and will support their future growth and the growth of the business.

For example, if a robot is employed within a factory to screw four exact holes into the same size sheet of plastic continuously all day this actually benefits the human worker in multiple ways. It saves human workers from performing a continuous and boring task, from developing repetitive strain injuries and frees up their time for a more complex job, perhaps in administration, management or quality assurance. All while the robot benefits the business by increasing productivity, efficiency and quality. There is also good evidence that automation does not have a negative impact on employment rates. One example is the Danish company, Trelleborg Sealing Solutions, who installed 42 cobots over 18 months. With increased productivity and quality, order numbers surged to the extent that 50 new jobs were created in logistics, quality control, marketing and the back office.

Increased Efficiency and Stable Production

Automation technology also increases efficiency and the quality of products. For example, if a robot worked on a repetitive task for you 24 hours a day then turn around time for your products to go from your factory to your customer’s door would be dramatically shortened.

As well as this, collaborative robot technology ensures consistency and a high-quality product output, which significantly reduces the amount of raw materials wasted. As a result, customer loyalty and retention will increase due to your products consistent high-quality.

It’s worth spending the time considering all these factors so you can get a real understanding of the short-term and long-term value robot automation will bring your business. It’s a detailed process because this is an investment in the growth, development, sustainability and competitiveness of your business. However, when building your business make sure you look past the payback period to calculate the ROI. Your payback period will always be longer than your ROI as your payback calculation is used to offset wages for examples whereas ROI calculation takes into considerations overall tangible and intangible business benefits and impact both short and long-term.