Factory automation tackles labour shortage and energy bills

Automation can help plug the skills gap, free up space in factories and ensure new technology is sustainable and futureproof. By Alex Forrest

The automotive industry is far from immune from the workforce shortage, with the UK publication This is Money reporting that the country will see a 160,000 shortfall of staff by 2031. While the sector has traditionally led the way with automation on the production line, it fed those processes manually from a logistics point of view.

We’re aware of the extent to which the labour shortages are affecting industries, especially automotive. I have been having conversations with various carmakers who are facing a 50-100 person shortfall in their workforce. On top of that, the cost-of-living crisis is reducing the demand for new cars. Carmakers are therefore facing tough decisions to reduce or redeploy their workforce to stay competitive. This is where automation can support. While parts of the production line have been automated for decades, what about the more back-of-house operations?

Automated technologies can reduce the need for labour and floorspace by storing, retrieving and delivering parts lineside autonomously

Currently, most operations will be using “Person to Goods” concepts, where workers travel long distances each day, walking down aisles to find products, potentially with errors in item selection. Applying the same principles of robotic production lines, automated technologies can reduce the need for labour and floorspace by storing, retrieving and delivering parts lineside autonomously. This can reduce 30 people working on shift down to ten.

That means the gap in workforce is lowered, and permanent staff can be redeployed to other, more added-value tasks. More fulfilling roles are proven to increase retention and reduce the cost of recruiting and training new staff. Technology is often pricey and difficult to justify, but with some systems like AutoStore’s there is a global average return on investment of 1.5 to three years. Additionally, investments can be made at a lower scale before then growing as production scaling is realised.

By investing in automation from the goods in to vehicles out, the manufacturing process provides additional efficiencies that human activity cannot provide. For example, live stock holdings and throughputs are more efficiently measured, it is easier to identify potential anomalies in the chain, assembly is accurate and repetitive. Automation also removes any human error and the requirements for frequent inspections at every station. This then relieves pressure on workforce requirements that simply aren’t available right now, while upskilling the roles of workers to more fulfilling roles.

The AutoStore solution uses robots and bins to quickly process small parts orders

Could automation relieve the pressure for more real estate?

The market for commercial real estate is cut-throat: the consequences of inflation have skyrocketed the price of industrial space. For this reason, many are turning to revamping their current facilities in order to reduce the cost of moving. A dense storage solution can make this option far easier. There is hope that in the future the value will fall but for now the property market remains competitive and finite.

Car manufacturers producing combustion and electric vehicles in the same factory can look at automation to free up the limited space, rather than sourcing more land to construct all types of cars. Some solutions can save any manufacturer up to 75% of the square footage used to stock components, while also offering four times the stock, holding the same space.

The energy bill

As the next global recession looms, with the cost of energy increasing somewhere between 300 and 500% for businesses, investment seems counterproductive to staying afloat and competitive. But the right automation can provide a quick return on investment, especially low power systems. Automation can also help businesses meet 2030 emissions targets by lowering the power requirements or even just running on solar energy.

The right automation can provide a quick return on investment

For example, if the production line becomes completely autonomous, then there is no requirement for lighting. With systems like AutoStore, ten robots use the same amount of energy as a household vacuum cleaner. Moreover, for daily operations, the robots can charge overnight using cheaper energy options and run on battery during the day.

It is crucial to save energy, not just for environmental purposes but also to be able to remain a sustainable business model. Think about how much electricity is used to boil the kettle for 30 people rather than three, to provide lighting throughout the factory for health and safety standards, and to offer heating in the staff room. Completely automating logistics and warehousing processes allows for dark storage of goods and a reduced amount of light and heat in factories.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Automotive World Ltd.

Alex Forrest is UK Business Development Manager of AutoStore

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