Robots-For-Hire and Continued Investment in Our Workforces

Here’s a bit of news I noticed last week, courtesy of the USGlass daily e-newsletter—Wisconsin’s Pioneer Metal Finishing, facing heightened demand and the inability to find enough reliable human workers, has begun paying robots to do a few critical jobs in their plant.

Yes, the robots are being “paid.” Pioneer Metal Finishing is renting the machines, paying Hirebotics a $15/hour rate. That rate is only paid when the robots are productive—about 80 hours per week. It’s a unique business model from Hirebotics, allowing a renter to save the major capital cost that would ordinarily come with purchasing several customized bots.

The fenestration industry is no stranger to labor issues, of course, and robots-for-hire might offer us a glimpse into the future of our shop floors. Many manufacturers continue to make the investment in automation—be it ancillary processes or full, high-speed lines—both for the new efficiencies these technologies can bring to our operations and for their ability to help us do more with less. It seems reasonable to believe that some glass and window manufacturers might find the robot-for-hire model attractive.

While they shouldn’t be, these can be scary developments for today’s plant worker. “Robots are taking our jobs,” isn’t an attitude you want flourishing on the floor, and today’s successful glass shops need to be getting in front of it. It’s part of why fenestration professionals must be continuously engaging and investing in their workforces.

This is a subject I’ve written about in the past. I’m passionate about it, and labor remains perhaps the single biggest challenge facing my customers today. With a strong economy helping drive increased demand in our industry, labor challenges can become more acute—such was the case for Pioneer Metal Finishing—and it may be the case for any number of commercial glass manufacturers.

In that way, I think any automation (whether it’s the robots-for-hire model or anything else) is best framed as an investment in both operational efficiency and in our workforces—with an emphasis on the workforce. Because no matter where we’re applying automated technology, it always has numerous human benefits. We can allocate workers to more specialized, skilled tasks. We can eliminate repetitious, ergonomically taxing procedures by letting a robot take care of them. We can reduce the risks associated with tasks like glass cutting and insulating glass assembly by automating them. That’s what investing in the workforce means—it’s providing workers the skills and the tools necessary to do their jobs better.

Sometimes it takes seeing the benefits in action. It’s natural for a workforce to be skeptical of automated processes taking over human tasks. But glass manufacturers who have gone through the process of implementing an automated line—and who’ve taken the time for proper training and to communicate the benefits—typically report high rates of employee satisfaction with the new technology. The successful glass shop of the future will be filled with employees who know how to best implement automated technology to drive increasing success.