Robots are picking up more work in crowded factories

Robots are appearing on more and more factory floors and assembly lines as companies struggle to hire enough workers to fill surging orders.

According to the Association for Advancing Automation, the robotics industry’s trade group, orders for workplace robots in the US rose by a record 40% in the first quarter compared to the same period in 2021. Robot orders, worth $1.6 billion, rose 22% in 2021, after years of stagnant or declining order volumes, the group said.

Rising wages and staff shortages, exacerbated by an increase in Covid-19-related absenteeism, are changing some manufacturers’ attitudes towards robotics, executives said. “You used to be able to throw people at a problem instead of finding a more elegant solution,” said Joe Montano, chief executive officer of Delphon Industries LLC, a maker of packaging for semiconductors, medical devices and aerospace components.

Delphon, based in Hayward, California, lost 40% of its production days in January as the coronavirus spread among its staff. The disruption accelerated the company’s purchase of three additional robots earlier this year, Mr Montano said.

An employee at Athena Manufacturing prepares a piece of equipment to be smoothed out by a robotic grinder.

Manufacturers in the US, where workers were typically plentiful and wages stable, were slower to embrace robotics than those in some other industrialized countries. The number of robots deployed in the US per 10,000 employees has historically dogged countries like South Korea, Japan and Germany, according to the International Federation of Robotics.

For many years, the use of industrial robots in North America was concentrated in the automotive industry, where robots took on repetitive tasks such as welding on assembly lines. While automakers and auto component manufacturers accounted for 71% of robot orders in 2016, their share fell to 42% in 2021, according to the automation association. Meanwhile, robots have made their way into other sectors, including food production, consumer products and pharmaceuticals. Executives said enhanced capabilities allow robots to be programmed for more complex tasks that require a combination of strength and agility.

At Athena Manufacturing LP, a metal equipment manufacturing and machining company used in the semiconductor, energy and aerospace industries, Chief Financial Officer John Newman said customers have ramped up orders but Athena is struggling to find enough employees to complete a man the second weekday shift. and a weekend shift.

The Austin, Texas-based company has purchased seven robots in the past 18 months, including one that grinds the welds on steel frames for holding semiconductor equipment. Mr. Newman said Athena has spent more than $800,000 on robots, including about $225,000 for the grinding robot alone. The investments were aimed at increasing Athena’s order-processing capacity, he said, rather than lowering costs.

Athena bought seven robots in the past 18 months.

Grinding the welds on a rack typically took a worker about three hours to complete, but the robot can now do it in 30 minutes, he said.

Mr Newman said the robot can apply more force with a grinding tool than a human, taking less time to make a smooth weld. “The robot doesn’t stop to rest, and that’s understandable for a human, because it’s a tough job,” he said.

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Purchasing the grinding robot took Athena about four years of research and engineering, said Mr. Newman, which included help from 3M Co.

which supplies the abrasive materials used in the grinding tool handled by the robot. Athena has deployed six other robots, four of which weld the racks and two load metal into machines. Most of these turnkey robots were delivered within a few weeks and can be programmed remotely from a phone app, he said.

“The robots are becoming more and more user-friendly,” said Michael Cicco, chief executive officer of Fanuc America, a unit of Japan’s Fanuc. Corp.

, a major supplier of industrial robots. “In the past, companies thought that automation was too difficult or too expensive to implement.”

Daron Acemoglu, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said factories’ increasing reliance on automation will lead to an oversupply of human labor that will depress wages in years to come unless other U.S. industries can absorb displaced factory workers.

Athena turned to robots, in part because it was struggling to find enough workers for a second weekday shift and a weekend shift.

“Automation, if done very quickly, can destroy a lot of jobs,” said Mr Acemoglu. “The labor shortage will not last. This is temporary.”

At Delphon, Mr. Montano said the company started leasing robots about four years ago to reduce initial costs. The company now has 10 robots, including four so-called cobots that operate side by side with employees.

Delphon’s subsidiary TouchMark applies printing to the surfaces of medical devices, such as catheters. Cobots now rotate and hold the devices while an employee operates a printer that applies the ink to the device. Mr. Montano said two cobots reduced a three-man print crew to one, saving the company $16,000 a month in costs.

Two other Delphon cobots assemble packaging for the shipment of semiconductors and other fragile cargo, which is shipped in plastic boxes. Robots are now being used to clean the 2-by-2-inch boxes with air jets, dispense a drop of glue into them, and then install layers of wire mesh and the company’s silicone film.

Mr. Montano said Delphon is scaling up robots to work on larger boxes. The robots have improved the company’s productivity, he said, resulting in a 15% increase in shipments in 2021 and 2020, respectively, without expanding its workforce of 200 people.

“We didn’t reduce workforces, but we reassigned them to where we needed people,” he said.

Athena said its robotics investments were focused on increasing its capacity to process orders, rather than reducing costs.

write to Bob Tita at robert.tita@wsj.com

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