Cobots: Opening Doors for Small Businesses

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Cobots are big news — and big business. They’re making industrial automation cheaper, safer, and more accessible. But there is a vast swathe of businesses — mainly small businesses — who have been left behind by the Cobot trend.

A recent Deloitte report surveying the industry found that “half of manufacturers have already adopted… robots, cobots [or] AI”. And certainly, it’s encouraging that half of U.S. manufacturers are seizing the opportunities of automation.  But, viewed another way, half of U.S. manufacturers are yet to embrace automation at all. These unautomated businesses are predominantly small; those organizations with the fewest resources are the least able to justify investments in new equipment. And what affects small manufacturers affects the whole U.S. manufacturing industry: almost ¾ of all U.S. manufacturing firms are small firms with fewer than 20 employees, so it matters what these small firms are doing.

Helping these businesses to make the changes they need is hard. Many firms are worried that by introducing automation they’ll deprive their community of valuable jobs. But the opposite is true: automation is imperative for small businesses to compete on the global stage. Over the next decade, Deloitte predicts that almost 2.4 million manufacturing roles will go unfilled for want of workers as young people are discouraged from entering the manufacturing industry. Automation will have to fill the gap. For smaller manufacturers who lack the means of their larger competitors, this is especially pressing — small companies feel the lack of good talent more keenly than large ones; if you only have 4 employees, the pain of losing even 1 is massive.

Industrial automation will even help those who are outside the manufacturing industry. This is true in two ways. First, when manufacturers prosper, the rest of the economy benefits — suppliers, logistics providers, and other firms gain from manufacturers’ increased output. The Manufacturing Institute claim that no other industry’s victories ripple so strongly through the rest of the economy, and estimate that each dollar invested in the sector yields a further $1.33 in upstream and downstream benefit. Second, when manufacturers improve their processes, consumers benefit from the increased productivity directly: more efficient processes means cheaper widgets, which in turn means a reduced cost of living for ordinary people.

Cobots could even help to bring manufacturing-style automation to other small businesses. Zume, for example, is a startup using highly-automated machines to cook high-quality pizzas. As robotics becomes more accessible, that automation will be available not just to highly-capitalized startups, but to small restaurants across the country. In time, cobots won’t just open up smaller businesses to automation, they also open up completely new businesses too.

 

1 https://www.nam.org/powerofsmall/

2 http://www.themanufacturinginstitute.org/Research/Facts-About-Manufacturing/Economy-and-Jobs/Company-Size/Company-Size.aspx

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