It’s not often that the head of one of the world’s most innovative companies puts their hands up and admits a wrong turn. But that’s exactly what happened recently, with Elon Musk tweeting that electric car manufacturer, Tesla, had become too reliant on robots.
Although it’s an extreme example, that rare mea culpa from Mr Musk is contrary to what we’re seeing play out on manufacturing lines across Scotland. Increasingly, companies are looking to automation as a means of boosting production, cutting cycle times, and driving efficiency in their businesses.
We’re even beginning to see demand for automation skills come from typically traditional industries. Whisky, in particular, has embraced the technology wholeheartedly. Perhaps it should be no surprise, when you consider that a typical manual production process can deliver up to 60 bottles per minute, against as much as 900 bottles per minute on automated lines.
We’re also seeing a lot more demand for people with computer numerical code (CNC) skills, which are replacing manual roles in the manufacturing of a range of components. These functions now tend to live in remote offices, overseeing multiple productions lines, and are often made up of a double-headed team consisting of a main CNC programmer and an engineer checking their work.
This example is indicative of the changing nature of these jobs too. Instead of performing relatively menial tasks, they’re acting as the first line of support. It’s a marked difference in terms of skills and competencies required of manual handlers, instead focussing on more technical skills such as how to redesign the machine for different quantities of product, full change overs, and re-programming.
In one case, a large whisky brand has set up a dedicated assessment centre to test new staff’s aptitude for working on automated lines, as well as their language and maths skills. These are very fast-paced jobs, so the better technical knowledge candidates have, the more likely they are to succeed. Anyone looking to make the transition needs to get as much training in the automated side as possible, whether it’s through their existing employer or through external training.
However, for SMEs, attracting people with these skills is like pulling teeth. They are mostly employed by large companies, which have paid their way through training. This means that they also come at a premium and would most likely consider a move to a smaller company a move down.
The barrier to entry can, therefore, be debilitatingly high. While a CAD/CAM package can cost up to £70,000, a machine might be north of £100,000. and then there’s the need for a team to run the machine, which may mean salaries of more than £30,000 per year each.
That said, they’re not always the right fit for every business. Automation skills tend to be more consistent with mass production, which is seldom the modus operandi of smaller manufacturers, where the focus is more often on lower volume, higher tolerance, and customised components. SME manufacturers will want think carefully before deciding to invest in people with these skills.
The transition towards automation can be confusing for companies and individuals who are used to working manually. But, for those looking to take that step, it’s critical that they get the right skills in place and give staff access to continuous training in the technology. Despite Elon Musk’s recent remarks, automation will only become more prevalent.