French labor shortages fuel trend of "plug and play robotics"
France, the EU’s second-largest manufacturing industry by turnover, has a problem: There are not enough people to staff factories across the country.
Job vacancy rates in manufacturing, used to describe unfilled job positions, last year reached the highest levels in 20 years. During the second quarter of 2022, no less than 2,2% of total job positions in the manufacturing industry went unfilled according to the French Directorate of Research, Economic Studies and Statistics (DARES) – a quadrupling since 2015.
“The industry has failed to keep enough people interested in working there, and we are now seeing the effects,” says Guillaume Pradels, a French-based business developer at robot manufacturer ABB for more than 25 years.
ABB was, along with more than 2,300 other companies, exhibiting in Lyon at the yearly manufacturing trade show, Global Industrie. A common point among many of the exhibitors was that the labor shortages are increasing the demand for automation in France, even among businesses with no prior experience with robotics.
“Many of the manufacturers that have come to our booth at the show were new to automation,” Guillaume Pradels says.
Manufacturers short on staff to operate robots
While a shortage of unskilled labor is driving French manufacturers to automate, there is also a lack of people with technical degrees who can operate the robots according to Pradels. This is especially an issue among France’s more than 24,000 small- and medium-sized manufacturers (SMEs) that account for 93 % of the businesses in the industry with more than 10 employees.
“Manufacturers are automating to make up for the labor shortages and provide better jobs for their existing employees,” says Lisa Ficot, a marketing & sales coordinator at the French robot integrator Robaut Conception (part of Siléane Group), another exhibitor at the Global Industrie trade show that have customers across a wide range of industries in France.
“But many companies, especially the SMEs, do not have the necessary skills to operate robot and automation solutions and do the reprogramming when there is a change in production for example,” she adds.
New robot solutions do not require programming
Robot integrators are in larger numbers beginning to cater to the growing needs of manufacturing SMEs and address the fact that most businesses are short on robot and automation experts. Among the solutions on display at the exhibition in Lyon, many were presented as being easy to use – even for non-experts.
Where integrators would previously pride themselves in delivering bespoke solutions uniquely tailored to each customer, many at the show now presented “standardized robot solutions” that were simple and quick to install and operate without any programming skills needed.
RoboJob, a Belgian integrator of CNC machine tending robots, claim their customers only spend about five minutes to make a change in production using a graphical user interface and no programming.
“This was unthinkable just ten years ago,” says Jan Van De Wouver, Sales Manager at RoboJob.
Many of the new robot solutions at Global Industrie were also targeted a high-mix low-volume production (HMLV) often found in SMEs. Some manufacturers, according to Jan Van De Wouver, now use robots for batches as small as five items due to the quick changeover.
“Before, you needed an engineer to program a robot. Now, it’s becoming much easier and more like using a smartphone in some cases. This means smaller companies can better use robots today,” concludes Guillaume Pradels.
French labor shortages by the numbers
- 2,08% of all job positions in manufacturing were unfilled in the 3rd quarter of 2022 according to DERES.
- 35 % of French workers consider quitting their job in the near term.
- France is the only EU country with positive employment growth in the manufacturing sector every year for the last five years where data was available (2016-2020) according to Eurostat.