Are cobots opening the door to a four-day manufacturing week?

Posted on 2 Aug 2022 by Joe Bush

Mark Gray, Country Manager UK & Ireland, Universal Robots discusses how collaborative robots – or ‘cobots’ – can help make the four-day week a reality for manufacturing professionals.

One of the many side-effects of the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic is a discernible recognition within businesses of all sizes in the value of its people. It’s not that this was taken for granted before, but there’s no doubt that during the pandemic employee health and wellbeing were given extra credence, and terms such as flexible working and work-life balance started entering the national lexicon.

Further to this, many employees around the world have begun trialling a four-day working week in an effort to transform the lives of workers and improve employee wellbeing. Much of the attention of four-day week trials has centred around the transformation of the lives of office workers. However, this new normal could also be applied to industries such as manufacturing, where there is a labour gap and the industry is simultaneously grappling with trying to improve productivity and redress supply chain issues.

Cobots give manufacturers access to all the benefits of advanced robotic automation, without the extra costs associated with traditional robots

Here in the UK, and within manufacturing in particular, The Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Coventry has offered a four-day week to 820 of its technical staff following a two-year, ‘Fully Flexible Working Week’ trial where 50% of employees reported higher productivity. The new working option will see staff work fewer but longer shifts, in order for the same number of hours to be covered in a four-day week as there would have been with five.

Here, Mark Gray, Country Manager UK & Ireland, Universal Robots discusses how collaborative robots – or ‘cobots’ – can help make the four-day week a reality for manufacturing professionals by increasing productivity levels which will facilitate a reduction in hours, in turn improving job satisfaction.

Cobot background

Universal Robots began life within Odense University in Denmark where three friends researched how industrial robotics could be deployed within SMEs. Barriers relating to cost, time and complexity of operation have made traditional robotics cost-prohibitive for SMEs to deploy. Thus the concept of collaborative robots was born – robots that can give manufacturers access to all the benefits of advanced robotic automation, without the extra costs, difficult programming, long set-up and shielded work cells – making automation affordable for small-batch production runs and mixed product assembly.

“The sector for cobots is growing very quickly,” added Mark. “In terms of traditional industrial robotics and automation, we’ve been very slow on the uptake in the UK and as such, we’re the least robotised out of the G7 economies.

“However, we are a parallel stream of automation and collaborative robots run alongside. And because around 75% of our sales in the UK are SME manufacturers, we’ve seen huge growth, because those businesses have got the biggest opportunity to transform.

“Cobots differ in that traditional automation is usually a long, drawn-out process for a company to adopt, and there’s lots of design stages, and ultimately a build stage. Our robots, however, can be deployed within a matter of weeks, and can therefore save money straightaway. The basic advantages of cobots for manufacturers is that they’re very quick to setup, easy to programme, and flexible enough to be moved around the factory as they don’t necessarily needs guards around them.

“We’ve seen customers whose complete manufacturing base has changed. There are companies that have deployed cobots in a completely different type of industry, and then repurposed them into a different part of the business, doing a completely different task. That would have been very difficult for a traditional robot.”

How can cobots make a four-day working week a reality?

Mark explained that the key is automating fundamental tasks. Often, when workers have been operating machines over a period of days, weeks, months and years, it is unlikely that automation has ever been properly looked at as a method to improve the efficiency of that process; a case of the task always being done a certain way (even if it is a simple one), so why is there a need to change?

“Now is the opportunity for using robots in tasks that have never been automated before. We talk about the 3D jobs – dirty, dangerous and dull, and it is surprising how many tedious tasks are still being performed by people.”

A four-day work week, achieved through collaborative automation, can ensure workers no longer need to spend time on menial factory tasks. By working with cobots, employees can then focus their time on more fulfilling roles, and reduce their time spent at work, improving overall wellbeing. This includes getting rid of the night shift, known to have an adverse effect on the health of workers.

“If businesses can change the way they operate by using automation, tasks can be condensed into four days. Cobots give you that chance to be able to work more efficiently in the manufacturing process and you could potentially produce more in four days, negating the need to work a fifth.”

How can manufacturers close the labour gap while simultaneously grappling with trying to improve productivity and redress supply chain issues?

Mark highlighted the conundrum currently facing UK manufacturing. Reshoring is a continuing trend in the sector as businesses look to strengthen the resilience of their supply chains; bringing production and component sourcing closer to home.

However, Brexit has ended free access to labour and changed the relationship with the rest of Europe. So, although the sector is busy, there is often a dearth of people to do the jobs. Far from taking jobs from humans, automation can improve the quality of manufacturing roles, attracting a whole new generation of talent. The industry currently faces an ageing workforce, and so attracting young people with the prospect of a stimulating career and a healthy work-life balance will help address the issue, especially if manufacturers can offer four-day working weeks in future.

Collaborative robots – or cobots – are making automation easier than ever, even for small and mid-sized companies around the world

“One question we always get asked is whether robots are going to take our jobs? The fact is that robots take tasks, they don’t take jobs,” Mark said. “Human skill and labour is the single biggest asset to any manufacturing business. If you want to recruit people, retain them, and be able to have a sustainable future, you need to really value the people that you have.”

Those 3D jobs discussed earlier are ideal for automation which can take the tasks that people don’t want to do. And in truth, due to the labour shortage, these are tasks that employers don’t really want their workforce doing either. Rather than doing boring, repetitive and dull tasks, bringing in cobots allows these individuals to concentrate on areas where they can add real value. And that fills the labour gap.

“This means that you’d be adding the value of human skill into the labour gap while removing tedious jobs from human operation,” added Mark. “There is a huge amount of tasks in the UK still to be automated – we haven’t even scratched the surface yet.”

Why is the UK lagging behind?

Mark explained that the UK has always been a labour heavy economy. Prior to Brexit, factory-based tasks would typically be filled by imported labour from Eastern European countries, rather than being incorporated into a long-term plan for the deployment of automation. However, we’re now being forced down the automation route as that deep pool of labour is no longer available.

Cobots can perform repetitive, heavy or physically demanding tasks, freeing up employees to assume functions that require greater skill or to work on more tasks

The UK has traditionally not invested in machinery to the same degree as other European nations. Levels of automation is high in Denmark for example. The country’s trade unions actually state that if a job can be automated with a robot, then it should be, to improve the health and wellbeing of the employees in that factory.

“We need to get into that mindset, because if we make a sustainable manufacturing base, we can become a powerful, productive nation – that’s one of the things that we need to change. And change is happening. We’ve gone through a huge transformation in the last two years but emerging from the pandemic, manufacturers now have a clear vision of what they need to do.

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