Skip to content

How Automation Enables Manufacturing Reshoring

James C. Cooper
By James C. Cooper General Manager, U.S. Regional Offices, ASI Network, Executive Sales Team and CERT Sales, FANUC America Corp.

Many manufacturers are moving their operations and services back to North America to protect against supply chain risks and better position themselves for success. By relying on industrial automation technologies, companies that reshore operations can minimize economic impact while maintaining product quality, increasing efficiency and throughput and, ideally, attracting talent in the face of increasing labor shortages.

Supply Chain Ripples and Shockwaves

U.S.–China trade issues have stressed the supply chain between the two countries for several years. Higher tariffs on U.S. imports from China reduced China’s U.S.-bound exports and U.S. import spending on Chinese goods. By withdrawing from the European Union, the United Kingdom adversely affected supply chains between the two entities. A McKinsey survey showed that Brexit’s effect on the supply chain may persist for a decade or more.

Texas-based aerospace robotics company Wilder Systems deployed a FANUC CRX-10iA collaborative robot (cobot) as part of a system that increases COVID-19 testing capacity to up to 2,000 samples per day. (Provided by Wilder Systems)

While these trade tensions created significant supply chain ripples for the countries involved, the COVID-19 outbreak sent shockwaves around the world. COVID-19 lockdowns, social distancing and labor shortages have disrupted the flow of raw materials and finished products. The pandemic highlighted supply chain vulnerabilities and accelerated some existing problems.

In late 2020, Ernst & Young surveyed 200 senior-level supply chain executives at a variety of U.S. companies with over $1 billion in revenues. Only 2 percent of responding companies were fully prepared for the pandemic’s impact on production, while 57 percent experienced serious disruptions.

In response, about 60 percent of companies will reskill their workforce to adapt to digital technologies, while 63 percent plan to invest more in artificial intelligence and robotics.

Automation technologies can improve efficiency, increase throughput, and drive revenue. But when manufacturing operations are overseas, the supply chain can still be disrupted, as the last year-plus has shown. As a result, reshoring has become the latest buzzword.

Reshore and Rejuvenate

A recent Thomas survey showed that 69 percent of North American companies across industrial sectors will likely reshore production and sourcing. Doing so, according to respondents in a Deloitte survey, will improve logistics, labor costs and production quality; combat intellectual property theft; and offer better proximity to North American markets.

These companies will create a diverse supplier network that futureproofs operations in terms of acquiring raw materials, components and finishing services. For companies to meet demand and maintain product quality, optimal throughput, profitability and efficiency after reshoring, automation technologies represent a necessity.

Automation Going Forward

Automation delivers several benefits, one of which involves employees. Attracting talent for manufacturing jobs has proven difficult. By 2028, the U.S. economy may have as many as 2.4 million open manufacturing jobs, according to a 2018 report from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute.

Introducing robots onto the manufacturing floor can serve two purposes in terms of talent. First, employees removed from potentially hazardous environments are free for more value-added work. Second, younger employees may be more attracted to positions that use automation and “smart factory” solutions that feed into e-commerce, retail and just-in-time inventory systems.

When integrated into manufacturing processes, robots help ensure consistent, high-quality products, while increasing efficiency, throughput and revenue—24/7. Let’s look at real-life examples of how robots quickly add value to manufacturing operations.

Delivering for Diagnostics Manufacturing

When COVID-19 cases in the U.S. rose drastically, a diagnostics manufacturer contacted ESS Technologies to build two filling systems with automated cap torque for vials to be used in virus test kits. The manufacturer urgently required a system that could fill up to 120 vials per minute. Developed in semi-automatic and fully automated configurations, the flexible filler/capper system uses a circular puck conveyor that transports vials or small bottles to an inline filling system. A timing screw drive positions six vials at a time beneath a six-up diving nozzle assembly where a precise amount of diagnostic reagent dispenses into the vials.

FANUC’s SR-6iA SCARA robots and a cap feeder automate the cap placement, and a three-up final torque station applies a precise amount of torque to the caps. The machine uses Allen-Bradley PLCs and a 6" (152.4-mm) color touchscreen human machine interface (HMI) for ease of operation. During production, the system provides changeover of under 10 minutes.

A second diagnostics manufacturer hired ESS Technologies to build several end-of-line packaging systems comprised of 13 robots for collation, cartoning and case packing sterile test kits. The ESS system offers fast delivery times, allowing the manufacturer to ramp up production capacity.

“As a critical manufacturer for the pharmaceutical and diagnostics industries, ESS worked with suppliers to keep the supply chain flowing—and we were able to deliver two complete systems in just a few weeks,” said Kevin Browne, president and founder of ESS Technologies.

Cobots Take on COVID-19

Texas-based aerospace robotics company Wilder Systems deployed a FANUC CRX-10iA collaborative robot (cobot) as part of a system that increases COVID-19 testing capacity to up to 2,000 samples per day and delivers results to individuals faster than other testing sites. 

Designed to perform saliva-based PCR tests using standard electric power, the system requires that an operator load test-tube trays and select them on an HMI to begin the testing process. The cobot arm loads trays of samples into an oven for heat deactivation of the virus, if present. Meanwhile, chemicals and reagents are loaded into robotic liquid handlers for pipetting. Samples are processed through a tube-agnostic, automated decapping machine to remove and discard caps. Tubes are then loaded into the robotic liquid handlers to prepare and reformat samples onto a well plate.

The samples are ready for testing, and the cobot regrips the well plate, which is heat sealed before entering the RT-PCR machine, which analyzes samples for the presence of the coronavirus. After the lab signs off, the final output of results is delivered to the patient via email or a secure portal. 

A Path Forward

For quite some time, offshoring has helped companies lower labor and logistics costs and access new markets, according to a Deloitte survey. Recent events, however, have highlighted the vulnerabilities associated with doing so when it comes to the supply chain.

As companies reshore, advanced automation technologies will offset some of the added costs while maintaining product quality and optimal throughput. In addition, the technology may help attract talent in an increasingly shallow labor pool. While the events that led to a national focus on reshoring were dire, automation technologies offer a productive and prosperous path forward for U.S. manufacturing.

  • View All Articles
  • Connect With Us

Always Stay Informed

Receive the latest manufacturing news and technical information by subscribing to our monthly and quarterly magazines, weekly and monthly eNewsletters, and podcast channel.