FYI today’s blog is not about all the cool advancements in agricultural robots. Even though I am still trying to encourage my husband to design a “hay”GV so I don’t have to pick up square bales anymore and I think the advancements there are really cool. But we are talking big picture.
Despite what you might think when the “Conveyor Cougar” calls me the “Conveyor Kitten” I have been in the material handling/industrial automation industry for quite a while now.
One thing that has always struck me, are the conversations I have where I am in a plant and the person I am talking to is apologetic about automating. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard something along the lines of, “I don’t want to get a robot, but I can’t find employees!” And that was happening even before Covid made things even more complex.
So why is automation a dirty word? Well, I can think of a few reasons…
Cost: Automating a manufacturing facility can be a significant investment. Depending on the scale, the cost of purchasing and installing equipment and software can be substantial, and some businesses may be hesitant to take the plunge.
Lack of expertise: Sometimes implementing automation requires technical knowledge and expertise. Businesses who aren’t familiar with technology may be nervous about implementing without fully understanding it.
Fear: Employees who fear they will be replaced by machines may resist (and even sabotage) automation, so why risk damaging morale and productivity by automating positions?
Reluctance: If it ain’t broke… am I right? Everyone is reluctant to deviate from a tried-and-true process sometimes. It doesn’t matter that automation can improve efficiency and profitability.
Innovations in the automation industry address the first two quite handily. Costs are going down, not just from increased supply, but by companies like FORMIC allowing companies to rent robots back at an hourly rate. I have also found a lot of grants for our customers by reaching out to state manufacturing associations. Grants are available for components, and also to pay for employee training. You know, to address the lack of expertise thing. Also collaborative robots, and changes to automation design, go a long way towards reducing the needs for technical expertise.
But what about fear and reluctance? Hard to ROI your way out of an aversion. Instead I have a story for you.
By now you may know that in addition to working at Flex-Line I also live on a farm. If not, well, now you do. So, back in the day you had to use animals to plow, right?
Now, I grew up hearing my grandpas arguing over whether it was better to plow with a horse or a mule. I guess mules are harder to work with, but less likely to freak out and injure you if they plow up a hornet’s nest. So there is your fun fact for the day. But hey, you know what doesn’t freak out when you run over a hornet’s nest and take off with a careening plow?
Yeah. A tractor. But when tractors began to emerge in the 1910s and 1920s, some farmers were skeptical of the new technology. Horses and mules were more reliable and cheaper to maintain! Who wants a big upfront cost like a tractor? How do you even figure out how to operate one of those danged things?
Well, it turns out dang near everyone wanted them. Eventually. Tractors are widely adopted in agriculture now. The benefits of tractors, like increased speed, safety, efficiency, and hornet proof cabs outweighed the perceived benefits of using animals. Today it is difficult to imagine a farm without tractors.
In my opinion robots and AI are the tractors of 2023. New technology is initially met with resistance, even in industries where it can have significant benefits. As with the adoption of tractors, it may take time for businesses to recognize the full benefits of using them in manufacturing and other industries. However, as new technologies continue to improve and become more widely adopted, they will play an increasingly important role in helping businesses become more efficient, productive, and profitable.
And that my friends, is how robots are like tractors.