With masses of baby boomers retiring daily, automation is one solution to confronting America’s manufacturing skills gap and aging workforce issue
by Kaylee Swearingen, Marketing Manager at Mazak Optonics
People grow older. It is just part of life. The US Census Bureau estimates that people 60 and older will increase to 22.2 percent in 2020. This is due to the baby boom which took place between 1946 and 1964. Now, roughly 10,000 people per day are turning 65 in America and it will continue until 2030. This phenomenon is the biggest percentage increase in the over-60 age group that America has ever seen.
With baby boomers aging in droves, the challenge now is the loss of skills from one generation to the next. Unemployment levels are at an all-time low across the country which means it is increasingly more difficult to hire, replace and train new employees with enough time to transfer vital information to the new hire. Skills are gained over years; it isn’t easy for novice employees to replicate without side-by-side training. The aging workforce creates an increase to the already existing manufacturing and fabrication skills gap.
Not only is this gap important for individual companies but also for US economic prosperity. Every dollar spent in manufacturing adds $1.37 to the US economy. On top of regulations, manufacturing and fabrication jobs are becoming more complex requiring advanced technical skills and knowledge about machinery, robotics and process controlled software.
An aging workforce is something that every American company will have to deal with but instead of viewing this as a major problem, this actually presents a great opportunity for companies. But what is the answer to the aging workforce and increasing skills gap?
A part of the solution is automation. Technology is an ideal way to compensation in the battle for top talent. Automating jobs and daily processes, no doubt, increase efficiency. But most importantly, automating does not mean replacing a job. It means reallocating workers’ time to a more productive task that saves time and increases efficiency. It’s time to embrace the future and begin the transition to a more automated workforce and work environment.
So what automation is available for laser-cutting machines? There are a variety of different solutions available depending on individual needs.
The first automation option is actually standard on Mazak laser-cutting machines. These standard features are the intelligent functions, more specifically, the intelligent setup functions. The intelligent setup functions are an assortment of tasks that the machines automatically performs for ease of operation, reduced setup time and reduced dependence on operators.
The intelligent setup functions include: auto nozzle changing, auto focus positioning, focus detection, beam diameter control, auto profiler calibration, and auto nozzle cleaning. By having these automatic setup functions performed by the machine, it reduces setup time to only 60 seconds.
Automation is not a one-size-fits-all solution, so depending on your laser-cutting needs that can change the automation necessary. If the laser is in a production environment, where it is running the same time of material and thickness day-in and day-out, a load unload may be the automation answer.
A load unload system has raw material stacked on a pallet and where it is then picked up by a suction cup structure and moved to the pallet changer where it enters the machine to be laser cut. Once the parts are processed, the automation’s forks go between the pallet slats, pick up the finished parts and move them to the finished pallet. This system increases flexibility to run over night or over the weekend.
With loading and unloading being completed through automation, this reduces strain on operators. Instead of laser operators bending over to grab material or lifting it to place onto the pallet, the automation reduces operator fatigue and allows him to focus on the cutting process.
If standardization of material thickness is not part of your business plan, a Flexible Manufacturing System (FMS) may be the answer. Mazak was the first manufacturer to introduce laser cutting machines into an FMS. These systems offer a load unload along with a tower for different types of materials and thicknesses. An FMS gives users the flexibility to run different types of materials by having different pallets storing raw material.
Similarly to a load unload, an FMS reduces strain on workers by eliminating the function of physically adding sheet metal to the laser. The tower reduces the amount of time the operator spends on getting the forklift, filing through the material racks and transporting that material to the machine. Having all the materials in one location also helps to keep the cutting process organized.
Parts sorting is another way automation can make the fabrication process less strenuous for workers. Having the parts removed and placed onto pallets eliminates the need for the operator to have to physically remove the parts from the laser. Once the job is complete, the parts on the pallet can be picked up with a forklift and moved to bending where it is the press brakes’ turn.
According to John Schumacher, Senior Vice President at Assurance, “jobs that are more physical in nature may create an increased potential for injury. Statistically, older employees gave fewer workers’ compensation injuries on the job. However, those injuries tend to be more severe and the recovery time is longer. The CDC and BLS indicate that workers 55 and older experiencing a lost time injury have an average of 12 lost work days which is almost twice the amount of workers aged 20-24.”
Having to place raw material on the pallet changer, shake parts, remove skeletons and sort parts can be extremely strenuous on employees. Even if you are unable to add a full system with conveyors or sorting, just having a load unload can reduce the physicality of your laser operator’s tasks.
By implementing automation to your laser-cutting process, this can reduce the amount of physical work necessary. Having the sheets loaded by a suction cup system, unloading the finished parts by forks, having conveyors to bring the parts to the operator or even having a sorting system which puts parts onto pallets can easily reduce the injury risk for strain on workers.
America is not alone in the aging workforce and skills gap. Japan is another country that is also in a similar situation. Japanese businesses are tackling their issues on workforce availability, skills development, and talent shortages by integrating automation and robotic technologies. Japan is also encouraging seniors to stay longer in the workforce and continue contributing to the economy.
According to Mihir Shukla, CEO of Automation Anywhere, “managing an aging workforce is one of the key socioeconomic trends of our times and a crucial issue for many of the world’s enterprises.” Much is at stake for one of the world’s most powerful countries. Now is the time to start automating your fabrication processes.
Automation is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Learn more about how Mazak's partnership approach to automation systems.