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Labor costs, shortage, increasing reliability: Why we're seeing more robots inside plants

Breana Noble and Kalea Hall, The Detroit News on

Published in Automotive News

Robotic increases across the industry

Suppliers — especially tier-one operators with more capital to invest, facing labor supply issues and the need to quickly adapt in the EV transition — are also turning to robots for help. Forvia SE, a French auto supplier formed in 2022 after Faurecia SE acquired Hella KGaA Hueck & Co., is one of those.

The world's seventh-largest auto supplier has installed highly automated flexible door assembly lines at plants in southeast Michigan's Saline and Spring Hill, Tennessee.

The automated line is more adaptable than the standard comparison operated mostly by humans. Forvia says it can use this automated line to adjust more easily to customer needs, including with volume and variants, which is helpful in the transition to EVs when automakers are guessing what demand will be.

"We're seeing the customers' low volume, high variability, and so being able to adapt to what the customer actually wants to build, this line is perfect for it," said Matt Myrand, digital transformation director for North America for Forvia.

The highly automated line is also a way to achieve higher quality. The standard line requires more manual handling, while on the automated line the doors are inside what's called a "nest" getting the welds it needs. Here, the door is more "protected," he explained.

And then there's the people aspect. Forvia, like other suppliers, has had a "hard time finding labor," Myrand said: "Being able to find the people to run it, improved quality and then really being flexible and modular are the key topics in why we drive towards that."

Automation also increases with new plants, AlixPartners' Wakefield said. There’s more construction ongoing in the industry with the move to electrification.

“Automation in existing plants is suboptimal,” he said. With new construction, it’s designed to be “built upfront and optimized.” Automation that works well won’t just replace labor, he added. It creates quality improvements, too, such as reducing scraps.


But there are downsides. More automation can make a line less flexible, which can be a challenge when something goes wrong for just-in-time parts delivery. Additionally, when something goes wrong, fixing it can take time, so companies have to factor in efficiency gains and costs related to maintenance and repairs.

Fanuc's newer robots connect to the cloud, and manufacturers can pay a subscription to receive information on when a robot might need maintenance to avoid downtime.

Other ways industry players are looking at cost savings include potentially investing in Mexico, where labor is less expensive and manufacturers can take advantage of tariff-free trade under the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement, Wakefield said. In public remarks earlier this year, Ford CEO Jim Farley suggested the automaker would "think carefully" about its manufacturing footprint after its Kentucky Truck Plant was the first truck plant hit in the UAW's targeted strike last fall, despite Ford building all of its full-size trucks in the United States and it employing more UAW members than its crosstown rivals.

Tom Kelly, president of Automation Alley, which calls itself "Michigan’s Industry 4.0 Knowledge Center," says the industry needs to move faster to increase automation. Doing so could increase jobs here rather than seeing them go to lower-cost countries like China and Mexico since the automation offsets the cost of labor.

"The rubber band's been pulled so far to the low-cost labor countries that, now, automation is actually our friend," he said. "It allows us to compete and bring jobs back, and you're seeing that around the U.S. You're seeing this reshoring, and it's actually creating manufacturing jobs, over the last year, not destroying them because we're able to pay higher wages and actually get the workforce."

Fanuc contends robots don't take away jobs, Finazzo said. He emphasized how the largest generation, baby boomers, also are retiring and leaving the workforce without people to fill the jobs.

New jobs are also created, such as robot technicians to install, maintain and repair machines. Fanuc, in the past few years, resumed an apprentice program and has expanded education programming to as young as elementary school.

"We are showing that it's a great career," Finazzo said. "It's a great way to make a good living and raise a family, and you're using your mind, not your back. I think the stigma around working in a plant was it's very physical. Now, it's very mental."

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