Is investment in automation the route to go?

In this issue – page 12 to be exact – I have compiled a list of comments on the recent strike action in the steel and related industries called for by the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA). The comments have been voiced by company owners, MDs, CEOs, Managers, Engineers, consultants and many others via social media, all in opposition to the strike. Virtually 100% of the comments were expressing their frustration, anger, whatever noun you want to use, with the situation. I don’t blame them because it has set the industry back just when there were green shoots of recovery after the endurance of the pandemic.

There were two comments that stood out for me though, and you can have little argument against them especially if you take into account the perception of the government and unions such as Numsa, perceptions that are held by many.

“Some days I just lose hope. Our industry is just recovering after the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and restrictions and now we are facing strike action. The frustration is that we are forced to shutdown and all employees, union or not, cannot work. Where is our democratic right to earn a living. Nobody wins!!! The most frustrating fact is that we have two minority factions deciding what the majority must do. Just be thankful you have a job and that your company hasn’t closed down. Let us get on with producing and trying to recover our industry and our economy.”

“Enough is enough of this strike by NUMSA in the steel industry. Is no one bothered by the effect that this is having on all parties concerned? Hell man is there no government intervention??? Livelihoods are being destroyed for personal agendas here. Mr President and all corrupt members of parliament you need to intervene urgently now. Start earning your salary and do something because if you don’t jobs will be lost and companies will close. Wake up!!! Let’s resolve this pathetic strike and let us get on with work. So many people want to but have had their human rights stripped from them. All you so called employer organisations catch a wake up quickly.”

Generally speaking we in South Africa are used to strike action and take it in our stride. But this latest strike came at a very inopportune time and could have serious repercussions for many workers and not the union bosses who get paid regardless, unlike the workers – the no work no pay rule applies.

I know it is an old adage but many companies will be looking more seriously at partnering with their suppliers as a knowledge resource, so as to make a successful transition from being a manual operation in many aspects to one of automation and in so doing raising productivity and attracting new business with its increased capabilities.

In the Viewpoint in this issue, written by Paul Savides of PBS Machine Tools, he furnishes some very interesting figures and he also advocates automation, wherever possible. Savides has done a ‘time hunt’ so as to see where a company could become more efficient and productive. He leaves no doubt in the fact that staff are the biggest drain on time, in any business.

These arguments can’t be disputed because you read so often about how investment in machining technology has facilitated growth and diversification at XYZ company. Now, flexible automation allows the company to get more out of its machines, despite a shortage of skilled workers. Equally you read more and more how cobots and machine tending robots are being deployed in manufacturing.

You might say that this is not the answer to our unemployment problems and you could be correct, to a certain extent. But if a company is to survive and at least employ some staff then they have to investigate investment in automation.