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Sunday, 18 March 2018 11:12

Technical knowhow: West Michigan evolves as hub for automation

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Given the mix of manufacturers in the automotive, medical device and office furniture supply chains across West Michigan, the region has developed as somewhat of a hub for automation equipment companies and suppliers. Given the mix of manufacturers in the automotive, medical device and office furniture supply chains across West Michigan, the region has developed as somewhat of a hub for automation equipment companies and suppliers. Photo Courtesy of Axis Company

Michigan’s role in improving manufacturing efficiency has come a long way since the invention of the assembly line. 

While the metro Detroit area claims the nickname of “Automation Alley,” it’s a moniker that could be applied statewide, according to industry experts. 

As Mark Ermatinger, vice president of sales at Industrial Control Service Inc., puts it: “We have more machine builders in Michigan, I think, than in any other part of the country.”

National data show that sentiment holds water. According to an August 2017 study from the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C., Michigan leads the nation with nearly 28,000 industrial robots in use “burning welds, painting cars, assembling products, handling materials, or packaging things.” 

The state accounts for about 12 percent of all robots in use nationwide, in part because of the machine builders in the area, according to the study. With more than 15,000 industrial robots in use, companies in Detroit — where there are 8.5 robots for every 1,000 workers — use robotics at a rate three times greater than firms in similar-sized cities, according to the report. 

Mark Muro, senior fellow and policy director at the Brookings Institution, also cited Grand Rapids as one of the mid-size “manufacturing centers” where industry’s use of robotics “looms large.” Grand Rapids-based manufacturers tripled their number of robots in operation during the “auto boom” years of 2010 through 2015. 

Grand Rapids manufacturers have 6.3 robots in use for every 1,000 workers, the highest of all mid-size cities, according to the study. 

“Because of the mix between automotive and medical, the Midwest — including West Michigan — is becoming kind of an automation alley,” Ermatinger said.

Ermatinger, whose Zeeland-based Industrial Control sells automation equipment, has seen the use of robotics blossom firsthand. The company’s sales have grown 47 percent since 2014, and are up more than 34 percent on a year-over-year basis through February, he said. 

“We have been blessed,” Ermatinger said. 

West Michigan’s success in automation technology stems from the region’s “long history of tool building that evolved based on market dynamics and a great base of diversified manufacturers in the automotive, office furniture, and medical device industries that found value through automating portions of their manufacturing process,” said Jon Maust, controls engineer and partner at Mission Design & Automation LLC in Holland. 

Maust, like Ermatinger, said the market for capable machine builders is strong, but he warns that the region needs to “keep that focus.”

“There is a very strong talent pool in Western Michigan because it was valued, (and) this region needs to keep that focus and valued approach to talent if we are going to be able to continue to grow as a technologically advanced automation hub,” Maust said.

INNOVATING TECHNOLOGY

Anecdotally, dozens of West Michigan companies work in the automation sector. They range from private equity-backed firms like JR Automation Technologies LLC, which is based in Holland and employs more than 1,700 people globally, to ArtiFlex Manufacturing, a 50-50 joint venture of Grand Rapids-based International Tooling Solutions and a subsidiary of Columbus, Ohio-based Worthington Industries Inc. (NYSE: WOR). 

Many local automation manufacturers have expanded in recent years to keep up with customer demands. For example, Walker-based Axis Company LLC said in January that it was investing $4 million and adding 50 new jobs, while Holland-based Koops Inc. doubled its capacity with a $4.9 million expansion in fall 2016.

According to the latest Association for Advancing Automation report, 2017 was a “milestone year” for the robotics industry in terms of revenue and shipments, as well as new orders. Last year, automation firms sold 34,904 total units and generated $1.896 billion in sales.

West Michigan’s deep bench of skilled talent has fueled a wave of automation companies in the area, particularly as employees from companies such as JR Automation go off on their own and start new businesses, Ermatinger said. 

“JR Automation is by far one of the largest and becoming a national player (in machine building),” he said. “Our area has been doing custom machine building for so long that I think it is inherent for all of the other companies to have a spin off or startup.”

JR Automation didn’t respond to a request for comment for this report. 

Tim Mroz, vice president of marketing and communications at The Right Place Inc., an economical development firm, said West Michigan offers many opportunities for automation companies.

“We have got such a diverse supply chain here that it’s a great testbed for companies like JR Automation to look at automated solutions within various types of manufacturing and manufacturing materials,” Mroz told MiBiz, adding that West Michigan is “uniquely positioned” in how it manufactures products.

“Like it or not, I think there’s increased pressure coming down from the larger OEMs, whether it’s in the automotive sector to office furniture to appliances, that are pushing down their supply chain to become more efficient, more lean, more productive,” Mroz said. “With that comes the embracing of automation.”

The region also is innovating more on the design and planning side for making automation machinery, he added.

At Mission Design & Automation, a producer of automation systems for the automotive, office furniture, medical and consumer goods industries, “we would not be growing at the rate that we are if we were replicating other automation ideas.” Maust said. “We have also seen suppliers use this region (to) field test emerging technologies, which continues to give us an advantage in expanding our automation capabilities.”

EMPHASIS ON STEM EDUCATION

To create the next generation of workers to keep West Michigan’s place in the automation industry, the region and the state need to focus a concentrated effort on STEM education, which “will build and maintain the automation solutions that are in place today as well as what will come out in the future,” Mroz said. 

“We have had fewer and fewer workers — employed adults — over the last two generations,” he said. “We are going to have to make that up somehow.”

With STEM-based education fueling a talent pipeline for automation providers, perhaps West Michigan can start making up for a large sector of the workforce that’s nearing retirement age, Mroz said.

“The integrated manufacturing practice is concentrating our educational system around STEM,” he said. 

For companies like Mission Design, having workers familiar with STEM education helps its business grow.

Currently, the company’s looking to expand in Holland Charter Township from its current 21,000-square-foot facility into a 60,000-square-foot building, pending local approvals, Maust said. The company has grown from 25 employees in September 2017 to 36 employees today.

“We believe the more students that are learning in this area, the better for our region and its automation industry,” he said. “At Mission, we have been fortunate to find the right associates to continue our growth rate. However, we know that this can be an area that could stifle our growth if our region does not have a good pool of talent.

“Our approach to finding the right associates is by having a culture of integrity, innovation, learning and rewarding achievements of our team.” 

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