Every morning, I read yet another article or blog or tweet about the resurgence – or not – of US manufacturing and the potential – or not – for good jobs to be won by the same. It’s ok, because as I’ve said before, I love manufacturing. And I’ll say it again, I love manufacturing.
As I travel around the country visiting our customers, more and more, I realize that I really love manufacturers who are considered small- to mid-sized businesses by the measure of number of employees. That’s likely to be because, in the U.S., more than 250,000 manufacturers have fewer than 500 employees. A big reason for my sentiment is because in spite of all the challenges these companies face – from labor shortages to lack of access to capital to help them scale, acquire new technology or even just repair worn-out equipment, they keep at it. Call it grit, call it optimism, call it good old American stick-to-it-iveness, they’ve got it and they keep going.
For too long, robots and the benefits they bring to manufacturing have been out of the reach of these manufacturers. Price was one barrier. Complexity – and the need for highly specialized expertise, another. With those obstacles out of the way, manufacturing has been democratized. Now, manufacturers of all shapes and sizes can put robots to work in their operations. They are, for many different reasons, and to do many different kinds of tasks.
With equal access to smart, collaborative robots companies like Standby Screw and Vanguard Plastics gain a fast path to exploiting automation to improve productivity and lower cost. They are tackling repetitive tasks, lowering error rates and reducing the likelihood of an injury to a person. For many customers, these robots allow them to “staff” positions that have been left unfilled for weeks or months with stability. They are also working alongside people, giving them opportunities to do more strategic work.
Perhaps, though, what I like best about working with these companies is the curiosity and optimism they bring to engaging with a robot. There’s a focus on the possibility that all too often seems limited at large manufacturers who are stuck in the old way of thinking about robots and automation. They are fearless when it comes to trying new applications and undaunted by trial-and-error. And our team learns a lot from them.
When you consider that studies show that smaller manufacturers produce more innovation per employee than large manufacturers, the potential for the next great thing to come from one of these is that much higher, as employees won’t be stuck doing work best suited for robots. So, no matter what tomorrow’s headlines say, I believe that “small” is where it’s when we look for big changes in manufacturing. What kinds of things do you think robots can do for “small” manufacturing? Tweet me @jim_lawton.
Originally published in Forbes.