The history of manufacturing is to some extent the history of substituting capital for labor. Devising a way of making things that is more reliant on equipment (or an organizing principle like the Ford assembly line) allows workers to be more productive and generate more output per hour worked. But capital requires, you know, capital. Adding new equipment like robots requires an upfront investment and having that investment payoff depends on scale at which the business operates. Big firms like Roger-&-Me era GM can afford robots even if they have limited capabilities but smaller firms have a harder time taking the plunge. Until now that is, if the Wall Street Journal is to be believed (Robots Work Their Way Into Small Factories, Sep 17).
Robots have been on factory floors for decades. But they were mostly big machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and had to be caged off to keep them from smashing into humans. Such machines could only do one thing over and over, albeit extremely fast and precisely. As a result, they were neither affordable nor practical for small businesses.
Collaborative robots can be set to do one task one day—such as picking pieces off an assembly line and putting them in a box—and a different task the next. …
Small businesses often need flexibility “because they’re not just packaging cookies endlessly,” says Dan Kara, a robotics expert at ABI research, a market-research firm in Oyster Bay, N.Y.
Here is a graphic of describing some of the machines discussed in the article.