Our Findings from IMTS 2022: Lessening the Pain of Manufacturing Labor Shortages

To see which wheels are in motion in the manufacturing industry, seven ABI Research employees attended the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMSTS) 2022 at McCormick Place in Chicago. Out of all the trends of the show, labor shortages in manufacturing stood out to our analysts as the most distinguished of all. The adverse effects of COVID-19 shutdowns still echo through the manufacturing industry, while reshoring has become a common trend. As a result, the scarcity of skilled workers is the most significant hindrance to productivity in many cases. To offset these labor shortages, manufacturers showed great interest in Augmented Reality (AR), robotics, and automation as key solutions.

Augmented Reality for Real-Time Interactivity

Although AR-based solutions still lack widescale deployment, this technology is seen as an excellent candidate to curb the manufacturing labor shortages. If a worker is equipped with AR headgear, he or she can be given instructions and it allows users to confirm that tasks have been carried out during the shift. AR-based employee training enables the user to interact with the environment in real time, as opposed to simply reading a handbook, watching a video, or watching another employee. Between the labor skills gap and the pressure on manufacturers to produce more goods, AR-based training could prove invaluable in getting new employees up to speed in a timely fashion. This especially rings true for durable goods manufacturing where, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, six out of ten jobs are unfulfilled.

Trumpf, which had two booths at IMTS 2022, has included AR devices in its go-to-market strategy. When a client runs into a technical error, they can use AR smart glasses to scan the Quick Response (QR) code. Therefore, once the customer calls the Trumpf support team, the service engineers can be engrossed in the environment as if they are in-person—and can pick up on every little detail. As soon as the support team diagnoses the problem, the user needs to just follow the hands-free instructions provided in the smartglasses’ field of view to resolve the issue.

Collaborative Robots Take Center Stage

Consistent with one of the main themes at IMSTS 2022—automation—Collaborative Robots (cobots) are a key enabler in mitigating the effects of labor shortages. It was striking to see that industries that have historically been conservative toward technology, such as grinding and finishing, have their eyes set on automating capital-intense low-skilled processes. While cobots were a relatively new technology at the last IMTS show in 2018, they’re now one of the fastest-growing technologies in factory automation. Today, cobots are a lot easier to operate, provide flexibility, and can carry out a wider range of tasks.

Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) will also be a key technology that manufacturers will adopt. Due to labor shortages and workplace safety, ABI Research projects 350,000 shipments of outdoor mobile robots by 2030, growing at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 27% between 2021 and 2030.

Notable Cobot Vendors

Universal Robots USA was a prominent player at IMTS 2022 and its company representatives demonstrated the UR20 cobot. The UR20 can lengthen the reach of machine loading and unloading because of its 68.9-inch (1,750 Millimeter (mm)) extension. Moreover, it can serve several machines during the same cycle and manage 25% heavier parts. Another robotics vendor, Yaskawa America, showcased its HC series cobots that are used for loading, unloading, and palletizing. The HC cobots are a suitable match for supporting welding processes like pre-assembly or replacing the process altogether. Some other major players in the cobot space with a presence at IMSTS 2022 included FANUC, Mitsubishi, Kawasaki, KUKA, and ABB.

On the software side, companies like OnRobot demonstrated the immense role they play in cobot deployment. To illustrate, D:PLOY software, offered by OnRobot, is said to reduce the time to deploy a cobot by 80%, which removes technical barriers for newcomers.

Lastly, it should be noted that the prevalence of AMRs was overshadowed by cobots, even though Boston Dynamics and OTTO Motors put on powerful demonstrations. For AMR booths, there was often an association with Artificial Intelligence (AI), which goes hand-in-hand with navigation and object recognition.

Automated Order Fulfillment and Parts Picking

Automatic Storage/Retrieval Systems (AS/RS) is another standout solution to persistent labor shortages in manufacturing. At the show, automation specialists, such as Mitsubishi Electric Automation, Agile Robotics, and AutoStore, exhibited cube-based robotic picking AS/RS solutions. For AutoStore, in particular, the company’s solution is lightweight, flexible, and can claim the title of the world’s fastest order fulfillment system per square foot. It’s also an extremely reliable storage system considering its 99.6% global availability.

For more complicated order-picking and fulfillment use cases, other vendors like KUKA, Kawasaki Robotics, and Universal Robots showed off their piece-picking robotic arms. In a real-world manufacturing scenario, these systems can automate, for example, the retrieval of small parts from a conveyor belt and place them in an organized pile. It could also mean positioning food products in the appropriate places before a final product is packaged.

Labor On Demand

On-demand labor was often discussed at IMTS given the shrunken labor market. In manufacturing, on-demand labor is where independent workers are hired by companies with robust staffing demands. This allows manufacturers to meet dynamic labor needs without having to hire as many full-time workers. When order forecasts take an unexpected upward projection, a plant manager can find workers on standby via a marketplace like Veryable. Just a click away, these on-demand marketplaces connect high-quality workers with firms in manufacturing, logistics, and warehousing.

Putting Manufacturing Labor Shortages to Rest Once and for All

A shortage of skilled labor has been a problem for manufacturers for a long time now; however, things have gotten progressively worse. A recent survey from The Workforce Institute found that 87% of manufacturing Human Resources (HR) leaders feel the impact of a skilled-labor gap now “more than ever.” Furthermore, 14% more production lines were understaffed in April 2022 compared to a year before. Several adversaries are causing these staffing issues, notably the lingering COVID-19 effects, Baby Boomer retirements, and the reluctance of younger workers to join the manufacturing space.

While increasing pay, improving benefits, and providing work/life balance can help attract and retain talent, manufacturers need to think deeper. What can you do to get the most out of the assets you have now? And how can you get new hires to hit peak performance more quickly? To keep up with customer orders, manufacturers must digitally transform their operations. As numerous booths showed us at IMTS 2022, there are various technologies that already exist that can help fill the gaps of labor shortages. These technologies streamline the workflow for human workers and, in the case of cobots, they can even automate low-skill tasks like lifting, picking, and loading. Not only will automation ramp up production capacity, but it also allows companies to stay resilient when market conditions take unexpected turns.

To learn more about the technology trends shaping the manufacturing sector (going beyond labor shortages), read the whitepaper: IMTS 2022: 11 Key Takeaways.

To gather the findings in this article and the whitepaper, the following seven ABI Research employees attended IMTS 2022:

Stuart Carlaw, Chief Research Officer

Michael Larner, Research Director

Ryan Martin, Research Director

Leo Gergs, Senior Analyst

Adhish Luitel, Senior Analyst

Andrew Spivey, Industry Analyst

David Lobina, Research Analyst