Human resource problems continue to be one of the biggest thorns in the flesh of plastics processors, many of whom believe the answer lies in total automation. The twin problems of finding and keeping good help, especially entry-level workers, have been exacerbated by low unemployment rates in many parts of the country and competition from the fast-food industry.
Also fueling demand for automation is the increasing frustration of employers over lawsuits involving wrongful dismissal, the Family and Medical Leave Act and Employees with Disabilities disputes.
Also, the high cost of Workers' Compensation insurance and other employee benefits have many processors thinking of nonhuman alternatives to production.
More than once, processors have commented, ``Robots don't call in sick or take time off for personal reasons.''
It's not that company owners are insensitive to the needs of their employees, but that they are tired of personnel problems and always feeling like they need to cater to the whims of each employee. So they look at automation.
Automation enabled one plastics processor to go from six to three machine operators using simple parts separators and conveyor systems. He also boxes parts by weight instead of hand counting, which decreases labor. Automation, he said, allowed him to ``weed out some problem em-ployees.''
Although this molder said he spent $10,000 on automation last year, he was able to drop three people making $6-$8 dollars per hour.
``With just a little bit of money up front,'' he said, ``you can turn a job that once cost you money into a money-maker.''
That's why this molder is looking at all the new tooling he builds to determine how it can be made to run automatically.
Still, some large original equipment manufacturers say they're moving away from robotics and letting people do the job. It's much easier, cheaper and faster to train people for different jobs than it is to build new fixtures for and reprogram robots.
The real solution, I believe, lies somewhere in the middle.
Processors will always need automation to improve efficiencies and reduce costs to manufacture. By the same token, we'll always need people who can think, innovate, respond and react in the production environment.
Lights-out production operations might seem like a trouble-free solution to the problem of finding and keeping good employees, and other human resource dilemmas.
However, sacrificing the human side of business isn't the answer. Automation and human-ation must work together for optimum production.