Eugene’s colleagues were wary of him when he started working at Etalex, a Montréal-based company that makes metal shelving and racking systems, in 2004. But in time, they became comfortable around him and even grew to appreciate him. As a robot, Eugene had many attributes.

More than a decade later, employees of countless small- and medium-sized business have come to the same realization: robots are able to help companies thrive in a competitive marketplace.

Etalex now has about two dozen traditional robots and three collaborative robots — cutting edge robots that interact with humans in a shared workspace. They can all be spotted at the plant; welding, operating a punch press, stacking shelves, or performing other tasks.

The robots work longer hours than their human colleagues, sometimes clocking as many as 19 hours at a time, and it’s not uncommon for them to work through the night.

Etalex’s Director of Operations Jean-Francois Rousseau says that because the robots produce a lot while demanding little — no vacation time or health benefits required — the company has been able to cut labour costs by about 75 percent.

"Etalex now has… three collaborative robots — cutting edge robots that interact with humans in a shared workspace."

But he dismisses the claim that more robots lead to fewer jobs for humans. “The robots have made our operations more cost-efficient, which has allowed us to stay competitive in the marketplace,” he explains. “As a result, business is booming and we’re adding jobs. If we hadn’t automated our operations we would have shut down — and all our employees would have been out of work.”

He emphasizes that human employees are indispensable because they perform more complicated tasks and also help the collaborative robots (cobots) with some simple tasks. At Etalex, for example, humans replace the supply of materials for the cobots to ensure an uninterrupted workflow.

“A lot of small- and medium-sized companies face stiff competition internationally,” adds Jeff Burnstein of the Association for Advancing Automation. “They face tough choices including the outsourcing of jobs. Automation makes them more competitive. We know many companies that became more productive through automation and, as a result, were able to hire people they had previously laid off. “The biggest threat to jobs is when a company cannot remain competitive.”

Cobots a boost to work safety

Not only are modern robots affordable, but they are also easy to operate. “You no longer need engineers or system integration firms to get them up and running,” says Burnstein. “There is an ease of use. Many of these machines can be programmed with smartphones or tablets.”

Rousseau adds that they are not a safety hazard. They are sophisticated machines that don’t fall over or knock into humans, so companies don’t need to build security perimeters around them.

Officials in Ontario’s ministry of Economic Development, Employment, and Infrastructure add that modern robots improve workplace safety because they save humans from heavy lifting and direct exposure to dangerous materials. They also work in places where humans wouldn’t dare venture.

Government officials across the country, along with business owners, are singing the praises of modern robots and the contribution they can make to industry. “We know that some elements within Ontario’s manufacturing sector could potentially increase productivity through increased use of automation.” Surely, the same could be said for the rest of Canada.