WMA Headlines March/April 2023April 12th, 2023 by Nathan Hobbs
Automation vs. Manual Labor: In Today’s Tight Labor Market, There’s No Question About It
By Jonathan Bayer
We are truly living in an exciting time of automation. I can’t help but be fascinated by the technology that’s available to help make our jobs easier, alleviate human strain and provide consistent quality to our customers and end consumers. It doesn’t seem long ago that each door in our facility had to be loaded into a door machine manually and then had to be adjusted manually to locate hinge routing templates. Then, hinge pockets had to be routed manually, hinges applied, and door frames assembled with screwdrivers and nail- or staple-guns on a fixed table, with jigs set up for specific door sizes. Thankfully, processes have improved to the point that there now is very little need for handling these heavy, awkward objects manually. The wild thing is—much of the technology we’re using now to automate and simplify the above steps isn’t all that new.
Like so many other things that come about, very seldom is a product truly a ground-up development. We can learn so much by observing other devices and existing technologies applied in industries other than our own. Adapting something that was created to solve a problem in another industry can open all kinds of possibilities to improve machinery, products and processes. RFID tags, CNC technologies, cameras, computers and photo eyes aren’t new, but applied in creative ways by the many great machinery companies you’ll see in this issue, it’s fascinating what can be accomplished using these technologies.
Some of the best investments our company has made have been the result of observing others in their respective fields doing what they do best. We’ve been fortunate to tour many factories and warehouses, not only of our industry peers and vendors, but also outside of our industry. Aircraft manufacturing, paint machinery manufacturing, furniture manufacturing, grocery distribution—these are just some we’ve borrowed from. Each of those opportunities allowed us to see how others approach manufacturing, distribution and sales processes. In many cases these opportunities proved a catalyst to pull together bits and pieces and adapt our own processes.
Return on investment is obviously necessary, but this typically hasn’t been the initial motivator in our experiences. Observing others and reaching that “Aha” moment, when we realize that something can improve quality, accuracy or human strain, has often been the start of a new automation project. In an extremely tight labor market, we need to continue to find new
ways of doing the job better, easier, more consistently and with higher quality—all while using the people we have today. Finding more people isn’t getting any easier. Using the talents of those we have, combined with better equipment and technology, while automating some of their most redundant tasks, thankfully is.
Jonathan Bayer is WMA second vice chairperson and senior management for Bayer Built Woodworks.
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