Companies Meet Labor Challenges, Electric-Vehicle Production With Robots

Facing tight labor markets, increasing payrolls, and new electric-vehicle goals, North American companies purchased lots of robots in the first half of 2022, according to Reuters.

Businesses bought 25% more machine workers during the second quarter than they did the year before, data from the Association for Advancing Automation (A3) reported, buying 12,305 robots valued at $585 million.

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"Companies need to get product out the door — and so they need new automation,” said A3 President Jeff Burnstein.

For each unemployed worker, two jobs are currently available, so many employers are raising pay to entice people to sign on. Total U.S. labor costs, including wages and benefits, increased by 5.1% year-over-year in the second quarter, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The figure marked the greatest leap since the department began tracking the data in 2001.

The new robotic workforce may not translate into productivity for a little while, though, as any new technology needs adaptation time.
“There’s a learning curve,” Burnstein said, noting that 60% of the purchases were made by automotive companies making the transition to electric vehicles.

Half of sales made to carmakers by FANUC America, the U.S. division of the Japanese robotics manufacturer, were for their new electric vehicle factories, Chief Executive Officer Mike Cicco told Reuters.

"This is all investment for plants that won’t be up and running for several years now," he said.

Manufacturing companies have also purchased robots to address the double whammy of rising demand and a worker shortage. Knapheide Manufacturing Co., for example, plans to use robots to feed steel parts through an automated welding process for flatbed truck bodies in its Quincy, Illinois factory. Currently, the company recruits human welders from as far away as Texas.

"We’ll always need as many welders as we can find," said Mike Bovee, the engineer overseeing the installation of the new robots for Knapheide. The good news for the human workers is that they can be redeployed to other parts of production at the 1,500-worker plant, whereas the robots are purpose-built for one job.