Spurred on by tax reform, a need for innovation and the current talent shortage, manufacturers increasingly have embraced automation on their shop floors.
The investments in capital equipment are changing the way manufacturers work and making them more efficient with their available workforces, as well as posing some new challenges.
In separate interviews, MiBiz spoke with four industry professionals to get their takes on the state of automation in their given manufacturing sector. They were:
- Food processing: Steve Cooper, COO and general manager of Continental Dairy Facilities LLC, a dairy processing plant in Coopersville, Mich.
- Automotive: Mike Wall, director of automotive analysis at IHS Markit in Grand Rapids
- Office furniture: Mark Kinsler, president of Trendway Corp., a Holland-based office furniture maker
- Medical: Ethan Bruyn, a process engineer for Medbio Inc., a Grand Rapids-based contract manufacturer that provides injection molding, assembly and packaging for medical device and biotech customers.
Here’s what they had to say:
How is automation changing manufacturing in your sector?
Cooper: Being a newer plant, we look at automation quite a bit, and we always have. We recently converted our control rooms from PCs communicating with the main programmable logic controller to thin client machines, which speeds up the interface between the two units, allowing us to more efficiently control the process. Our latest investment — building a $50 million butter expansion — allows us to produce 25,000 pounds of butter per hour with just three employees due to fully automating the packaging system along with the robotic palletizer. The new tax laws are a secondary conversation: When we look at automation, we look at efficiency, food safety, and (return on investment) on each project first.
Wall: It’s been really impactful over the last several years. We’ve seen automakers and suppliers alike really embracing automation. It has been a way for us to remain engaged from a production standpoint in the auto industry here in the U.S. Where we’ve seen some business moving to other markets — the high labor-intensive work (like) wrapping wire harnesses and things like that — where it’s a real manual process, it’s left us. What automation has done, and you see it with the various suppliers on the west side of the state, is afforded the opportunity for these suppliers to drive skill with a smaller labor force (and stake out) a stronger position.
Kinsler: The challenge we are having right now with finding employees working in the plant has really forced everyone to look at their current processes, and automation is certainly one of those strategies. … I think there is going to be continued investments in it, because one of the things automation does is it makes it easier for us to provide more customized solutions for clients. I think our clients continue to get more and more sophisticated about what it is they want in the environments we are providing.
Bruyn: Depending on the volume of the product or how aggressively we quote parts, automation can be huge. Quality operators are becoming very hard to come by and even quality operators miss things here and there, so repeatability is key. Vision systems and robots are becoming mandatory in injection molding to overcome these struggles.
What kinds of issues is automation forcing your industries to confront?
Cooper: Our processing speeds are getting so high that we can’t do push-button operations anymore. I have been in the dairy industry for 40 years, and I was in the generation of the push button. … Now we run the whole system in our control room, where we have large screens, trending analysis. When you look at our process … we don’t have a lot of time. We are at 95 percent capacity year-round, and we process four tanker loads an hour. I can’t push a button that fast.
Wall: Less labor intensity, but higher value-added labor. The content and the work that these suppliers are doing are higher value-add in their nature as well. They are doing more complex assemblies. They are automated in some places as well, more efficient and productive at the end of the day. It’s the proverbial ‘do more with less.’ You have more of an upfront investment certainly in net technology in that automation, but at the same time, you are able to create and evoke more flexibility in your manufacturing processes, more efficiency and output.
Kinsler: We are certainly seeing more foreign competition, and the market and our customers are always looking for us to improve the processes that we employ in the plants, and that’s around efficiency and cost improvements. We have to stay current with the rest of the industry and our competitors from overseas as well.
Bruyn: Operators continue to play a mandatory role in our manufacturing environment with automation there to reduce the difficulty of their jobs. Automation allows one operator to run many different jobs all at the same time. It allows jobs to be as repeatable as what the automation is capable of. Strenuous jobs like gate trimming can be done completely by robots, reducing the risk of health issues over time.
What kinds of investments in automation is your industry making?
Cooper: We converted from analog controls to digital automation. It was a big expense for our company. It does pay for itself. The challenge we are catching with the labor market is forcing us to automate. You are almost in that position as a manufacturer. Nowadays, a lot of people are pushing lights-out manufacturing. Some of that technology is not proven yet, but I think it’s going to get there. I put a system in California where you can do it with nobody. There are even people at Rockwell (Automation) creating self-teaching computer programs.
Wall: It depends on the supplier, but I have seen certainly more robotics (and) more computer activity and measurement. I’ve gone into several suppliers and as you approach the building, you see there’s an expansion going on — 10,000-, 20,000-square-foot expansions — and this is great, business is booming. But how many jobs are they adding? Well, we are adding 10, 15, 20. We are not adding a thousand. What is increasingly happening in these cases is you may have a supplier adding five lines, but in this case, you need limited workers to manage those lines, where in the past, you may have needed one (worker) per line.
Kinsler: The investments we are making are in information (technology) systems that give the plant better information for better manufacturing. It helps us increase our view of inventory and make sure we are scheduling the appropriate products and the appropriate orders. It’s really the I.T. system inside the plant that’s helping us a lot with our costs. I can’t think of a time when we haven’t been investing in this. It’s accelerating right now, and that’s just the function of new technologies coming into the industry that allow manufacturers like us to take advantage of them … like CNC machines that we have been (using) for some time.
Bruyn: End of arm tools, vision systems, automatic packaging, cartesian robots, and currently six-axis robot cells are the big items we are looking into and or purchasing.
What are some challenges companies face when investing in automation?
Wall: The challenges are we have to find the right workers who can build and manage these processes. It’s not workers of a more manual nature; it’s more of a knowledge-based worker. There are more high-skilled workers today.
Kinsler: Fortunately, because of where we are located, I think we have the advantage of a lot of expertise and benchmarking. BIFMA as an organization does a great job of connecting us and looking at some of the resources we can (expose) ourselves to.
Bruyn: Low-volume parts are something that really challenges us, as automation comes at a pretty high price tag. This along with short runs is what really makes automation difficult. Without being able to dedicate a machine or a cell to one workpiece requires a very repeatable, robust setup. Setups like this can be very time consuming, and downtime needs to be as low as possible to be competitive in our industry. Skilled labor is something we also currently lack in this area, as these setups usually require fine adjustments here or there on startup and not everyone is capable of learning this trade. We have also faced issues with automation vendors not backing up their products, so it’s really important to understand that you are buying the right equipment for the job.