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“Many businesses that don’t automate soon will cease to exist.”

For years, craft businesses in Germany have been struggling with a shortage of skilled workers and a lack of trainees. For Werner Hampel, who has been an entrepreneur in the field of robotics for 30 years, there is therefore only one logical consequence for many businesses: automation. In an interview, he reveals which fears have to be overcome and how craft businesses can master the start into automation.


Interview about the start into automation

What questions do craft businesses ask themselves about the topic of “automation”?

These are really always the same two questions: “Is automation controllable for me?” and “Is it affordable for me?” On the one hand, it’s a question of whether my workers can work with a robot. And then, of course, on the other side is the cost issue. Many craft businesses don’t think they have the money to spare. But the investment costs for a KUKA welding cell that runs in two shifts, for example, can pay for itself within around 17 months – depending on the consideration of the residual value and average annual return on investment.

At the Decker joinery in Tyrol, a KR 360 is used on a linear guide rail. This enables tree trunks around eight meters long to be processed. (Source: Decker joinery)

What are the biggest fears about this?

“You’ve spent a lot of money and then it doesn’t work.” In my estimation, that is the main fear of craftsmen. But on the other hand, I can clearly see that many have the courage to go down this path. I get a number of calls from craftsmen saying: “I have a work step that I could well imagine using a robot for. But then they always have the same follow-up question: “Can I program it myself? And how much will it cost me?” Once these questions have been answered, planning can begin.

And how do skilled trades know if they can handle automation?

Generally, that’s not a problem. After all, it has been proven many times that robotics is not rocket science and is feasible for companies. At KUKA, there are great possibilities: Using the KUKA.Handguiding system with ready2_pilot, I can show the robot, do this or that. And with an employee, it’s no different at first. But the robot does it without a lunch break. However, it does not make the employee superfluous, but relieves him. The robot can take care of monotonous work while the craftsman takes on other, more important tasks. No one loses their job. On the contrary, many companies that don’t start automating soon will cease to exist.
He knows the concerns of the industry: An absolute expert in the field of automation in the trade is Werner Hampel, Managing Director of Robtec GmbH. (Source: Robotec)

Which craft businesses have great potential for automation but are not yet using it?

As soon as I manufacture or process products or tools at my company, this comes into question – whether stair railings, cabinets or plane irons. I may even have a small series production. These are businesses that can benefit from automation. In purely theoretical terms, this could also be the baker. The master baker with 40 years of experience will continue to do so. But will he find enough apprentices? The robot can support even there.

In a nutshell: What clearly speaks for automation?

It consistently produces consistent quality at a predictable price. It works faster and more accurately. It has more power. And as a result, I get more orders and at the same time relieve my employees, who can then tackle more important tasks.

What are the next steps once the craft business has decided to automate?

First of all, I need to know where I want to use the robot. It is best to look for a place and a simple, perhaps even a monotonous job, the execution of which is always difficult to occupy. A job that nobody likes to do. That’s where the 4 Ds come in: dull, dirty, dangerous and difficult. In any case, I look for the job that is most likely to be worth automating. That’s where I start and gather my first experiences. So I get a robot into the plant or a complete manufacturing cell from KUKA.
A robot also helps master carpenter Axel Eigenstetter (left): The KR 500 FORTEC is operated by employee Gunnar Mai. (Source: Eigenstetter joinery)

How can KUKA help craft businesses?

The craftsman says for which task he needs a robot. Maybe he even sends a workpiece there. KUKA offers the option of creating simulations and feasibility analyses free of charge. Thanks to many years of expertise, the engineers then usually already know which components are needed. KUKA also has a partner network and is sure to find the right contact if additional automation expertise is still needed.

To whom does this still apply?

Especially for skilled workers. Take welding, for example: There are very good welders, but they are dying out because there are not enough young people. No one wants to weld seams all day in a mask and suit anymore. KUKA has recognized this very well and is addressing it with the KUKA cell4_arc arc welding cells. Automation therefore offers a practical solution to a problem such as the shortage of skilled workers. And this is where we, as integrators or robot builders, must also start.
About the author
Sebastian Schuster
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