Tennplasco recruits collaborative robot to fill human labor gap
Tennplasco uses collaborative robotics to fill human labor gap
Sawyer the cobot (Photo: Rethink Robotics)

Tennplasco recruits collaborative robot to fill human labor gap

Plastic injection molding company Tennplasco was struggling to hire enough workers to operate machines in its factory – but Sawyer from Rethink Robotics has stepped up to the plate. 

The fear that human workers will be uprooted and displaced by machines seems to dominate most conversations around robotics today – but little time is spent on the fact that many manufacturers find it hard to recruit and retain the human personnel that they require.

Tennplasco, a plastic injection molding company based in Lafayette, Tennessee, is a case in point: a shortage of workers with the skills to operate its machinery had left it struggling to operate. In order to keep things ticking along, Tennplasco turned its attention to robotics as a potential replacement for human workers, finally settling on the deployment of Sawyer, a collaborative robot (or ‘cobot’) from Rethink Robotics.

“Like many other manufacturers out there, we have been really struggling to get workers in our factory, especially on the off shifts,” said Danny Rose, the company’s general manager. “The truth is, there are not a lot of people in our area looking for injection molding jobs, and if we don’t have people showing up to work, we can’t operate.”

Not only was the company’s Lafayette plant in Tennessee unable to operate at full capacity without a full workforce, but time and money was being squandered on efforts to recruit what Rose calls “non-existent labor.”

Tennplasco picks Sawyer

Instead, Sawyer is being used on the assembly line, helping to assemble and inspect automotive parts. Supposedly, the robot was easy to deploy and employees required minimal training to understand how best to work alongside it. “With Sawyer, we don’t have to worry about whether the shift will be staffed,” Rose commented.

Sawyer in action (Photo: Rethink Robotics)

While many workers are worried about being replaced by robots, it seems that many manufacturers the world over are worried about how to tackle human labor shortages. Indeed, the consultancy company Deloitte recently predicted a shortfall of two million factory employees by 2025, a problem Rose many companies of a similar size to Tennplasco can relate to.

“For small- to mid-size manufacturers, selling the CFO on the cost of deploying automation can be a challenge,” he said. “Our team was willing to try it, and with Sawyer, we reached our [return on investment] in just three and a half months.”

“Our customers, especially those in the automotive industry, trust us to support their businesses and meet their changing needs, but to do this, we need both workers and the technology to be innovative and nimble – Sawyer has made that possible.”

Read more: IIoT and the rise of the cobots

Changing needs of the modern factory

Despite the changing needs of the modern factory, it appears that robots and the use of robotics is unevenly spread by geography. In the United States, according to a report by the Brookings Institute, “are congregating densely in some places but are hardly found in others.”

So the report says, robots are predominantly found in states where the auto industry is strong. The Midwest and upper Southern states, for example, currently employ half of all industrial robots used in the US.

Michigan accounts for nearly 28,000 robots, 12 percent of the nation’s total, Ohio’s robot population totals 20,400 or 8.7 percent, while Indiana constitutes 19,400 or 8.3 percent, followed closely by Tennessee. By contrast, just 13 percent of industrial robots can be found in the West of the country.

Thus, the study points to two conclusions. Firstly, that automation will not occur in the same way everywhere and will be determined like many other economic changes. Second, anxiety about robots will also have its own geography. The hope is that both of these discoveries will make the problem of addressing the changing patterns of employment that little bit clearer.

Read more: Connected tech adoption in manufacturing set to double