One thing that stood out to me at this year’s GlassBuild Show in Atlanta was the abundance of robots. (If you missed it, have a look at [DWM]’s video coverage.) With all of the problems that some manufacturers are having finding qualified and reliable labor, this certainly wasn’t a surprise to me. What does baffle me, however, is that with all of these manpower issues facing door and window manufacturers these days, why is it that I don’t see more robots in the door and window plants I visit?

I asked one of my industry colleagues today why he thought manufacturers seem to just kick tires when it comes to robots and are slow to pull out the checkbook to invest. “Short term thinking,” he replied. With many operations, people look at robots and are fascinated by what they can do, but when they look at the price tag, they get sticker shock and end up saying, “Wow that’s a lot of money to spend. I think I will just keep looking for more people!”

What they fail to take into consideration is the almost pure profit stream that can arise once the robot has paid for itself. They also don’t seem to realize that the robot can indeed pay for itself. “It’s a short-term mentality,” says my colleague. “It’s not about how I can invest in the future of my company and in technology that will ultimately make us more successful, but rather how we can maximize profits this year.”

So, how does a robot pay for itself, and under what circumstances is it wise to invest in this technology? Well, first of all, as with any machinery purchase, the fabricator can realize an immediate impact on his current-year tax bill by deducting 100% of the investment as a first-year depreciation brought about by the Section 179 Tax code. So, let’s say your company decides to invest $2 million into new robots—using the Section 179 Tax Calculator, the company can save $700K on taxes bringing the net cost of the robots down to $1.3 MM. So, before you even get started, the robots have paid for a third of themselves by the time taxes roll around.

Now, the next question becomes, “How many robots do I get for $2MM and how much is saved on wages, benefits, and personnel training?” According to RobotWorx, the average cost of a new robot equipped with application-specific peripherals is between $100K to $150K. So, for a $2MM investment, that is 13 to 20 robots. If you’re paying a wage of $13 per hour (say fully loaded including benefits), then you are saving between $338K to $520K per year in wages. Now, that does not include overtime wages. So, given the tax savings and the savings in wages, you can recoup the $2MM in as little as 2.5 years or as much 4 years.

But again, if you decide to run your robots overtime or on a second shift, then they work for just the cost of electricity and maintenance. They will stay late without question and even work that second shift that you now find virtually impossible to staff. They don’t call in sick; they don’t do drugs, get injured, check their Facebook while at work or disappear after that first payday never to return again.

With the proper maintenance, they cut, route, measure and install hardware within exacting specifications each and every time resulting in extremely low levels of rejects, field complaints and warranty work. Robots also don’t develop work-related health issues. They can do repetitive tasks without developing carpal tunnel and can work in extremely dusty conditions, like routing or corner cleaning, without developing lung disease.

Now, remember that this payback scenario assumes each robot is costing up to $150K and is replacing only one person or operation, but there is also the possibility of buying reconditioned robots at half the cost and robots that replace more than a single person. The robots I saw at GlassBuild were multi-axis workers, accomplishing multiple operations either simultaneously or in sequence. Their efficiency is amazing!

Not every operation in your plant may scream robots, but for the jobs that are the most critical, dangerous or repetitive, our android friends deserve real consideration!

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