Smart Solutions Series Recap: Technology as a Solution to the Labor Shortage



cobot.jpgIn our most recent Smart Solutions Series webinar, we explored how technology can be implemented to make production more efficient and free workers from manual labor, which helps to effectively utilize talent resources and fill workforce gaps in facilities. A brief summary of our virtual discussion is outlined below.

Understanding the technologies of today begins with an understanding of the technologies that came before. As explained, the First Industrial Revolution used steam power to mechanize production. Almost a century later, electricity, gas and oil emerged as new sources of energy in the Second Industrial Revolution, leading to the creation of the internal combustion engine and the start of mass production. In the Third Industrial Revolution, automation, computers and electronics emerged to drastically transform and improve communication and manufacturing. Recently, increased interconnectivity enabled through cyber-physical systems and the Internet of Things have advanced manufacturing more than ever before in the current Fourth Industrial Revolution, commonly referred to as Industry 4.0.

While there are many types of technologies that fall under the Industry 4.0 umbrella, the following three are seen as the most impactful for small to mid-sized manufacturers:

  1. Automated data collection – Most smaller manufacturers still collect and manage data manually, which is both inefficient and an ineffective use of resources. To relieve workers of this time-consuming work, there are many technologies available that support data collection and management. Monitoring machine performance through the use of sensors, for example, automatically gathers accurate, real-time data to provide decision-makers with critical insight into overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). This enables workers to identify patterns and weak points in production, determine root causes of issues and prevent problems from occurring in the future. In addition to saving time, this also gives leaders a better idea of where to prioritize investments and improvements down the line.
  2. Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) – While most have already implemented Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems to manage aspects like finances or customer relations, many businesses struggle to monitor shop floor metrics related to scheduling, labor, quality management and so on. This is where an MES can help. MESs are more aligned with the needs and operations of small manufacturers, and they’re also easier to implement. Manufacturers can utilize an MES to track core functions, like production scheduling/dispatching, quality management or performance reporting, with information from sensors feeding directly into the MES dashboard – and it can even link to an ERP system for more comprehensive operations management. Much like automated data collection, this enables manufacturers to identify areas for improvement in production, leading to more efficient practices and better utilization of labor.
  3. Flexible automation – Automation can be fixed, programmable or flexible. Cobots, or collaborative robots, are flexible as they can be designed specifically for many different applications. Traditional robots, on the other hand, are not as easily programmable or flexible and typically take the place of workers, rather than working alongside workers. They also commonly require safety cages or equipment to maintain a distance between workers, while cobots are safe enough to work next to. Compared to robots, cobots are smaller and simpler to work with. They can be applied to perform dull, dirty or dangerous jobs, enabling workers to take on more complex, less manual tasks. Additionally, cobots can be programmed to run for longer shifts, leading to increased productivity and consistently higher quality. Most cobots can be programmed from a control panel or by moving its arm, so implementation does not require much technical knowledge. Cobots are available at a fraction of the cost of a robot, or can be temporarily leased. Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) have recently grown in popularity due to the wide variety of applications they provide, without requiring an operator. See our Mobile Industrial Robot (MiR), combined with UV disinfection technology, in action here.

Vickers Engineering, a CNC engineering company based in New Troy, Mich., is just one of The Center’s many automation success stories. Starting small a few years ago, the company designed a work cell to have a cobot suspended from above, able to manipulate work around the tombstone fixtures of three horizontal mills at once. After achieving success there, the company grew to implement automation throughout their facility, leading to great improvements in productivity, labor utilization and competitiveness. Workers were then upskilled to operate and maintain this new equipment, leading to more opportunities for promotions and a doubled hourly rate. This use of automation continues to generate new jobs within the company and attract younger workers, helping Vickers Engineering to grow from 80 employees to nearly 200 in just a few years. Hear more about the advantages automation provided to Vickers Engineering here.

View the full Smart Solutions Series webinar recording here.

For assistance with your technology implementations, The Center can help. Using our Technology Opportunity Assessment, our experts work with you in a hands-on, personalized capacity to enable your company to identify technologies that will provide maximum improvements and return on investment. Learn more here or contact our experts at

Be sure to join us for our next Smart Solutions Series webinar on April 21 from 9 – 10am where we’ll explore how to tackle the labor shortage with cross training and skills acceleration.


Gettel_M-web.jpgMark Gettel, Business Solutions Manager
Mark Gettel is a Business Solutions Manager for the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center’s southwest region. Mark’s responsibilities include supporting small to medium-sized Michigan manufacturers by providing them with assistance and expertise to help them grow and improve. Before joining The Center, Mark was the owner and general manager of a manufacturing company in Brant, Mich., where he gained valuable insight into all business operations, from sales to production to human resources. 



Since 1991, the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center has assisted Michigan’s small and medium-sized businesses to successfully compete and grow. Through personalized services designed to meet the needs of clients, we develop more effective business leaders, drive product and process innovation, promote company-wide operational excellence and foster creative strategies for business growth and greater profitability. Find us at

Categories: Advanced Manufacturing, Industry 4.0, Technology, workforce