How Robotics Can Help Manufacturers Optimize The Future

American companies need to do more automation to keep up with reshoring opportunities, Panasonic Connect leader says.

Panasonic Connect leverages its deep knowledge of industrial engineering to optimize customers’ supply-chain operations using technologies including sensing, AI and robotics. The the way Gustavo Sepulveda sees it, his company is going to be relying a lot more in the future on robotics and other forms of automation to help North American manufacturers take care of the new market opportunities that are opening before many of them.

Reshoring is one major factor that will produce the kind of demand he’s envisioning, the head of robotics and automation for Panasonic Connect North America told Chief Executive and a handful of other publications recently.

“This is a trend that [North America] will see for many, many, many years,” Sepulveda said. “At the same time, I don’t think companies will continue to send everything to China as they did over the last 20 to 25 years.”

But, he cautioned, the United States “by definition” doesn’t have the manufacturing capacity to bring back, say, even half of what is now eligible for reshoring from China. Also, Sepulveda said, “from the cost point of view it is also very difficult, because costs [for labor] are higher than in China.”

Installation of more robots will help individual American companies and U.S. industry as a whole take as much advantage as possible of the reshoring opportunity, he said. In fact, because American companies still have far to go to catch global leaders in robotic installations per capita, the opportunity is underscored.

In 2012, both the U.S. and China installed about 23,000 robots. But last year, Chinese companies installed 270,000 robots, while U.S. outfits added only 35,000. “Even though it is considered a low-, low-cost country, China is installing a massive number of robots, more than the rest of the world together.”

But, Sepulveda noted, Chinese as well as American companies are actually playing a game of catch-up in robot installation with three countries with much higher densities of working robots: Germany, South Korea and Japan. “Due to the high density in those countries, there is not that much more there to automate,” he said.

Here are some other ideas Sepulveda presented for how U.S. manufacturing chiefs can optimize their opportunities for reshoring:

Attack the labor shortage. Just because American manufacturing chiefs have created an unending refrain about tight labor doesn’t mean their pain has eased at all. The increased pace of baby-boomer retirements in part can be expected to offset the countervailing effect of an economic slowdown.

More automation, Sepulveda said not surprisingly, is one great weapon to use against this problem. “The [employment] gaps aren’t as big as they were too many years ago because so many people have implemented automation as a solution to the shortage of factory workers,” he said. “The move toward automation is already having some effect.” Yet, he noted, manufacturing “will always be a people business at the end.”

Look to robots. Supplementing or replacing human labor isn’t the only reason to install a robot. Robots also can improve quality and create a safer and more efficient environment, Sepulveda said.

“When you combine [them], companies grow and they generate more jobs and more automation is needed. And this is a circle that companies that implement automation will always have: You will produce in a more efficient way, in a safer way with quality. You will have sustainable growth, healthy growth, and you will generate money.”

Focus on training. One way to keep manufacturing workers is to train them for better, more or other jobs. “People want to have different programs in which they can see themselves growing inside that company, or even out of that company,” Sepulveda said.

Panasonic Connect has been doing more training with and at customers. “We have trained the trainer because we cannot be there 50 weeks a year,” he said. “We train two or three of their people, and they are the trainer.”

For some customers, the company also provides equipment, and “we practically furnish the classroom, because it is in our interest as well that they are well trained. Otherwise, they will need a lot of service and support that we are not going to be able to provide, because sometimes it will be at three in the morning or on a Saturday or holiday.”

Panasonic Connect also supplies technical schools with “the most critical or common machines, so when they leave, their students are 70% to 80% ready” to work in a factory. “And the training curve is less,” Sepulveda said.

Mentor others. “I have participated in several mentoring programs in which we worked together for 12 to 18 months,” Sepulveda said. “At the end of that period, the mentee is a different person, because they have been able to develop a lot of skills that were needed in the job they have. And I’ve seen them really thanking the company and [me] for this. People who participate in these programs normally do not leave.”


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