Addressing the lack of skilled workers with automation

Addressing the lack of skilled workers with automation - when is it worthwhile and when not?

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Published by Geyssel
22/06/2023
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Machines and software programmes are becoming increasingly more intelligent. As a result, it is now possible to have more complex tasks performed independently, using automated processes Automation is therefore no longer only possible as a stand-in for simple and recurring manual tasks, but is increasingly also used for routine work and for quality control and maintenance. It is often also viewed as a solution for the ongoing and continually worsening staff shortages. However, is this really the case? Can automation be used to address the lack of skilled workers? Could this reduce the need for both untrained and skilled employees? In this article, we will explore the possibilities that automation already offers today in relation to the shortage of skilled workers, which future prospects exist, and in particular, when investment in intelligent machines is worthwhile and when it is not (yet).

Brief summary of main points

Definition of automation

Automation is understood to refer to the largely independent performance of work processes by machines, robots, and software solutions. People merely perform the monitoring, and are no longer responsible for the manual execution. In particular, it is simple and continually recurring processes that are automated, however, routine tasks along with quality control and maintenance are increasingly also automated. A distinction is generally made between partial and full automation:

Partial automation

In the case of partial automation, only some process steps are automated. Example: A CNC machine performs the rough work, while the precision work is still performed manually by skilled workers.

Full automation

With full automation, the entire process is handed over to machines and/or software. The human merely monitors. Example: A fully self-driving car would be a good example of full automation. The human only issues the command (the destination), while the journey itself is performed completely independently by the vehicle.

Objective of automation:

The objective of automation is the handling of simple, continuously recurring and routine tasks by machines, software solutions, or robots to the greatest extent possible. Here, the processes should be as fully automatic as possible, and errors should be recognised independently. Error correction, monitoring, and programming remain the only tasks reserved for people.

Traditional areas of application for automation

Both traditionally and currently, it is recurring and routine tasks that are being replaced with automation.

The replacement of simple activities with automation

By replacing simple manual activities for which untrained personnel are generally required with automation, staffing costs can be reduced. This makes it possible for companies in high-wage countries, for example in Germany, to improve their competitive capacity on the global market . At the same time, human errors can be largely avoided and the quality, quantity, and speed of production improved.

With the help of intelligent machines, automation can increasingly take over work processes performed by skilled workers.

Replacement of routine tasks with automation

According to a study conducted by McKinsey, 50% of all manual activities can be automated. Other researchers (such as Max Cheprasov) even claim figures as high as 75%. This means that automation is even feasible for routine processes that are currently performed by qualified personnel.

Examples of this might be the automated checking of creditworthiness in banks, or the use of welding robots within the automotive industry.

Neue Anwendungsbereiche von Automatisierung

There is a key difference in the use of the two concepts.

Other areas in production and management are increasingly optimised by means of automation. The development is far from complete. Here, we present the most important aspects:

The taking over of work of specialist skilled workers by intelligent machines.

In the next step for automation, more complex tasks that were previously performed by skilled workers are also taken over by machines. Only the task definition, programming, and monitoring of the machines then remain in human hands and must be performed by qualified personnel. These employees then acquire additional skills (e.g. they can stop the machines autonomously) and receive more training, as they are constantly required to be up-to-date with the latest technology. Through Total Productive Maintenance, Condition Monitoring and collaborative robots, the work of skilled workers can be supported. This is discussed below.

Total Productive Maintenance 

Total Productive Maintenance (TPM), also known as Total Productive Management, refers to a comprehensive approach, for a production system that is as free from interruption as possible. The aim here is, first and foremost, to avoid waste and losses, so as to reduce downtime, defects, accidents and quality issues to zero. At the same time, an increase in productivity can be achieved.

With the help of the Total Productive Maintenance approach, waste and losses should be avoided and an increase in productivity should be achieved.

The following aspects are particularly possible with TPM:

Autonomous maintenance

With autonomous maintenance, the responsibility for fundamental maintenance work is transferred to the machine operator. As the employees who work with certain machines on a daily basis are the most capable of monitoring these machines, specialist maintenance technicians can focus on other tasks. The prerequisite is that, through training, the machine operators are capable of performing monitoring and reacting in due time. The topic of Training & Courses plays an important role here. Production losses and device damage can then be largely avoided, and employee satisfaction increases. Planned maintenance is a standard part of the TPM method, with a view to avoiding downtime.

Vertical start-up curves for new systems

Through TPM, Processes can and should be optimally designed in such a way that an almost vertical start-up curve is produced for new systems and new products, i.e., in such a way that the machines and processes rub smoothly right from the outset.

Muda – the avoidance of waste & losses

Muda is the Japanese word for waste and refers to the consumption of resources that incurs cost, but does not generate any value. Waste is therefore the obvious cause for loss. Avoiding muda and improving processes accordingly is therefore a key objective in terms of the optimisation of production processes and companies.

Focused Improvement – Continuous Improvement

In close relationship with Muda is the concept of striving for the continuous improvement of processes and products. Small teams of employees work together to detect errors and defects and to initiate and implement improvements. Focused Improvement is an important aspect of Kaizen, a method and philosophy that strives for continuous improvement. This, in turn, is closely related to quality management.

Quality management

Proactive inspections and quality controls play a key role in TPM, alongside rapid error detection and cause analysis. Intelligent machines, which independently detect errors and then automatically stop or issue a warning, can be used for this purpose. Autonomation plays a major role in this context. The Jidōka concept , which was developed by Japanese car manufacturer Toyota, prescribes the early interaction between affected employees. Faulty production runs are avoided and a team of responsible employees develops joint solutions in order to correct errors and optimally avoid errors in the future. As such, a learning process is set in motion, which optimises production in the long term and increases quality and quantity.

Training & education of employees

In line with the objective of increasing productivity, within the TPM philosophy it is very important that supporting processes, devices and employee together ensure that the safety and quality of production is maintained and improved. In addition training courses and skills development provide an important basis for employees. All device operators and maintenance employees should always have the up-to-date knowledge required to correctly perform quality, inspection, and maintenance tasks autonomously. Increasingly, digital solutions are also used here for training regarding work instructions and one-point lessons.
Quality control plays an important role in the optimisation of production processes

In addition, TPM also covers the areas of occupational safety, environmental and labour protection, which we will not address in further detail here. Instead, we will not present some important tools for improved automation.

Condition monitoring by intelligent machines

Condition monitoring is used for preventive maintenance of machines and production optimization.

The condition monitoring of machines can be performed using sensors, which optimises maintenance and production. In particular, meaningful measurements include vibrations, temperature, oscillation and humidity values. Through the analysis of the measurement values, errors and wear can be detected in due time prior to production downtime occurring.

Condition monitoring is considered a form of future-oriented maintenance and can compensate for the weaknesses of reactive and preventative maintenance. In the case of reactive maintenance, repair and parts replacement are only performed if the machine has actually failed, which results in longer periods of production downtime. In the case of preventative maintenance, on the other hand, parts are replaced on a rotational basis, which can result in fully functional parts being replaced, thus representing a form of waste.

Just as is the case when performing maintenance on cares, maintaining machines is all about finding the right balance with regard to servicing. At present, condition monitoring is relatively cost-intensive if deployed in all areas. However, it is possible to use this type of condition monitoring on a one-off basis and avoid production downtime for important processes and expensive machines. In future, condition monitoring is sure to be developed and will increase in significance.

Collaborative robots

Cobots (collaborative robots) can support skilled personnel in their work.

Collaborative robots, often referred to Cobots for short, are industrial robots that work alongside a person and can communicate with them by means of sensors. There are no protective devices, and therefore the robots must be constructed in such a way that they represent no immediate danger to people. Often, collaborative robots take on strenuous tasks, such as the lifting of parts, which are then processed further by the person.

As experienced special machine manufacturers in Germany, we have an in-depth knowledge of intelligent machines and, thanks to our collaboration with universities, they are always up-to-date in line with the latest technology. We can help you to optimise your production processes with the help of our special machines. 

Is automation a means by which to combat the shortage of skilled workers?

The term skills shortage is on everyone’s lips at the moment. Can automation really help here?

What are the reasons for staff shortages?

There are a number of reasons for the current lack of skilled workers.

Demographic change and the lack of young people are reasons for the shortage of skilled workers.

Demographic change

Probably one of the most important reasons for the lack of skilled workers in Germany is demographic change. The so-called “boomers” are gradually going into retirement, and the subsequent generations are, in terms of number, much smaller. Companies must live with this demographic aspect, now and in the foreseeable future.

Lack of young personnel in skilled trades & technology

Generally speaking, there has been a shortage of young skilled workers for some time. The increasing desire for academic education has no doubt influenced this, along with lack of academic qualifications in many young people and lacking motivation to explore a career in a skilled trade. In the past, vocational training in the skilled trades was achievable with a lower secondary school leaving certificate, but today many school leavers are no longer able to meet the requirements of vocational training. The only way to remedy this would be long-term policy interventions, which would not yet have an impact on the current situation.

Generally speaking, companies are forced to plan for falling numbers of potential employees, even taking the aspect of immigration into account. However, this cannot compensate for the current lack of skilled workers either.

Which employees can be replaced by automation?

Due to the increasing shortage of potential workers, the replacement of personnel by means of automation is an important aspect in dealing with demographic change. Unskilled and semi-skilled workers who perform simple, continually recurring manual work are the most easily replaced. In addition, skilled workers who previously performed purely routine tasks can increasingly be replaced by intelligent machines.

Which skilled workers are still required in case of automation?

Skilled personnel for the maintenance of the machines and for quality assurance are still required, often in even higher numbers, as an increasing number of machines always means an increasing number of technical staff. This additional demand can only be limited if intelligent machines support quality controls and maintenance through autonomation and condition monitoring. Furthermore, additional qualified workers with specialist knowledge are increasingly required for special machine construction, programming, and software development.

Therefore, in this context, automation does not result in the workforce being rendered null and void, but rather results in a shift in terms of the allocation of tasks, with a tendency towards the deployment of more skilled workers.

Can skilled workers be deployed more efficiently with automation?

By increasing the skills of existing machine operators and skilled workers and, at the same time, through the use of intelligent machines (automatic error detections, condition monitoring, autonomous maintenance etc.) which relieve the burden on employees, these employees can be deployed in a more targeted and a more efficient manner in order to increase and ensure quality. Theoretically, this will enable increased productivity without increasing the number of skilled workers. However, one prerequisite is that companies invest in intelligent machines.

What advantages does the replacement of personnel by means of automation offer?

Often mooted as a major advantage of automation is the fact that machines do not require holidays, do not get sick, work around the clock, and rarely make mistakes. This results in a significant increase in machine running time, production output, and productivity. Sales and turnover, and at the same time occupational safety, can therefore be significantly increased. What’s more, the quality of the products generally increases on account of a reduction in human errors and, once the machines have integrated quality control, fewer rejects are produced.

When is automation worthwhile?

The more complex the tasks that a machine is to take on, the more expensive it becomes to design, program, and construct a machine that can perform these working steps in place of humans. Therefore, individual companies must always clarify in advance whether or not such an investment is worthwhile. For not everything that would be technically feasible with automation is logical in everyday business.

Therefore, here, we would like to consider and discuss the topic of automation and intelligent machines in relation to the area of production.

Evaluation: When is automation worthwhile?

Generally, the rule of thumb applies, whereby automation is considered logical if the process time can be reduced by 50% and the costs for automation in case of smaller automations can be amortised within one business year. For larger projects, amortisation can take longer while still remaining efficient.

Tip: Use the reduction in quality costs to fund the amortisation!

The reduction of rejects, faulty products, or production downtime can make a crucial contribution to amortisation. The costs incurred due to production downtime, for the screening out of defective products, or for defects due to human error, can to a large extent be avoided through automation. It is imperative that this fact be considered alongside the potential savings in the duration of the production processes and the matter of amortisation. The investment can therefore pay for itself much more quickly than it may seem at first glance.

Automation in large production companies

Large companies or specialists with a large product output in terms of numbers can generally benefit from all aspects of automation:

Automation can help to be more competitive in the global market
  • The automation of simple and recurring tasks can reduce the need for unskilled personnel, lower costs, enable the production of higher quantities with improved quality, and as a result, help the company to be competitive on the global market.
  • Furthermore, condition monitoring can be used to avoid sudden production failures within the machine fleet and the replacement of a large number of still functional parts, which would otherwise have been replaced as a preventative measure.
  • With autonomous maintenance, machine operators can be trained and equipped to observe and maintain the operated machines independently.
  • With intelligent machines, specialist maintenance technicians can therefore focus on complex and serious errors and defects.
  • An automatic quality check integrated into the machine could largely avoid both faulty products and tedious production stops.
  • The available number of skilled workers in larger or more specialised companies will in many cases be sufficient to safeguard production, including with new and intelligent machines. The pressure to find new skilled workers in large numbers is therefore relieved.
  • Through training measures and intelligent support in the machines, existing machine operators can be equipped to act independently and quickly recognise problems, which could avoid production stops.
  • The entire team of skilled workers learns automatically through joint error correction, in accordance with Jidoka, as soon as the machine automatically issues a warning or stops in the event of errors. The development of joint solutions results in continual learning progress.
  • The competence and satisfaction of the available skilled workers increases if they can independently stop the machine and feel responsible.

As a reliable special machine manufacturer and a medium-sized business, we would be happy to support you with the analysis and evaluation of your production process with regard to automation.

Automation in small and medium-sized companies

It is helpful to automate simple and recurring work steps.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have particular demand with regard to automation. On the one hand, they must operate cost-effectively in order to be competitive. On the other hand, investments in expensive machines are often a major undertaking.

  • In the medium term, small and medium-sized companies must automate simple and continually recurring work steps so that they can offer competitive prices, as the salary costs in Germany are very high.
  • What’s more, it may be worthwhile automating routine processes that reoccur on a regular basis.
  • At the same time, opportunities to reduce quality-related costs (the cost of manual quality inspections, the number of faulty products etc.) must be considered.
  • The extent to which investment in expensive, intelligent machines is worthwhile as a means of supporting maintenance, quality control etc. must always be verified on an individual case basis.
  • Provided there are sufficient skilled workers within the company, who can responsibly monitor and maintain a considerable quantity of machines, this may be more cost-effective than investing in an expensive machine that may monitor itself, but still requires maintenance personnel.
  • Collaborative robots may represent an alternative and support skilled workers in performing difficult tasks.
  • Condition monitoring tends to pay off with individual, expensive systems, as a means by which to monitor the systems and avoid production losses on account of machine issues.
  • If only very few, high-quality products are manufactured within an elaborate production process with many different tools and machines, complete automation can be too cost-intensive, especially for smaller companies.
  • If there is already a lack of skilled workers, it may not be possible to maintain and inspect (additional) intelligent machine as required. Therefore, it may not be possible to compensate for the cutting of personnel costs in case of routine or simple work.
  • An alternative would be the outsourcing of maintenance and servicing to an external company.
  • The conditions and the starting point must be individually analysed in each case to get a realistic idea as to which machines would pay off and which may not.

The role of special machines in automation

Special machines play a major role when production processes are to be automated. In many cases, series-produced machines do not offer the required range of functions, and modules are often also insufficient. Special machines can be planned, designed, and constructed in a way that is individually tailored to the requirements of the company. At the same time, additional functions such as automatic error display, automatic quality control, and condition monitoring can be integrated on request. Production can therefore be optimised and product quality/quantity can be increased. An in-depth analysis of the actual status and the joint definition of solutions of course form part of this.

Benefit from our experience. We look forward to advising you!

Conclusion

Software and machines are becoming increasingly more intelligent and can therefore take on increasingly complex tasks within the production process in the long term. This not only saves on personnel costs for unskilled workers, but can also enable the more efficient deployment of skilled workers. However, this very much depends on whether aspects such as maintenance, condition monitoring, and quality control can be supported by the machine itself. Seek competent advice from the Geyssel Special Machine Manufacturer team as to which functions the special machine to suit your requirements should have, and whether this would be a cost-effective solution for your company. Submit your questions to us as soon as possible!

FAQ

Intelligent machines can automatically detect production errors and signs of wear in machines, both taking care of quality control and also avoiding faulty products and production losses.

First and foremost, automation reduces the need for unskilled workers. Skilled workers are still required for monitoring and maintenance. Only through intelligent functions, such as condition monitoring, can these tasks be assumed by machines.

Using sensors, intelligent machines can measure attributes such as oscillations, temperature, vibrations, and humidity, and provide guidance regarding errors or wear. Production losses and faults can therefore be avoided in good time.

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