Published in Manufacturing

Automation providers see an opening during production pause

BY Sunday, April 12, 2020 07:31pm

As businesses have been forced to pause operations in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, manufacturers are using the opportunity to explore and research new technologies that could change their future processes. 

That’s according to Mark Ermatinger, CEO of Zeeland-based Industrial Control Service Inc., who said automation suppliers have a chance right now to educate clients to help them better understand emerging technologies in the sector. 

Mark Ermatinger, CEO of Industrial Control Service Inc. COURTESY PHOTO

“The tide is changing,” Ermatinger told MiBiz. “People have just gotten settled into working less or from home and the cleanup work is drying up. As that dries up, they’re going to be browsing and educating themselves and preparing for the future.”

Staff at Industrial Control have begun a video series to help manufacturers learn about emerging and maturing Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technologies like machine vision, robotic bin picking and flexible feeding systems. 

While working from home, Jake Hall, senior account manager at Industrial Control, demonstrated in one video a wireless temperature and vibration monitor by attaching it to his smoker grill while he cooked pork shoulder for dinner.   

“There’s no rocket science here anymore,” Ermatinger said. “That’s what we’re pushing the most.”

Wireless connectivity and monitoring products that connect remote assets with the people who manage them could be one of the first products to be deployed quickly after manufacturers can get back to work, according to Ermatinger. Enabling real-time monitoring and management of equipment and conditions in difficult-to-access locations or where wired solutions are impractical will be especially important in the future, he said. 

Data radios like the H10 Series MutiHop from Minneapolis-based Banner Engineering Corp. can be used to monitor multiple sensing points on equipment and assets spread out over long distances.

As more components on the factory floor become connected and remote access to those networks expands, increased cybersecurity also will come into play. I.T. and security departments have typically been the gatekeepers to the adoption of new technologies, and they’re not always enthusiastic about expanding virtual vulnerabilities, according to Ermatinger. 

“For years, we’ve been pushing the IIoT platform, and the I.T. people have been the main culprits for not doing it,” Ermatinger said. “Working from home has really disrupted that, and they’ve had to open their gate a little bit.” 

Now, companies are being forced to adapt to cybersecurity “outside of their four walls,” he added. 

The way the pandemic is changing how manufacturers work today will most certainly shift the industry moving forward, according to Ellen Boehm, senior director of IoT product management at Ohio-based Keyfactor

“If you’re going to be a viable device business, your workforce must determine how they can maintain productive operations when they can’t be physically present in manufacturing facilities,” Boehm said in a statement to MiBiz. “This is the reality today, and companies will have to accept it as a long-term scenario.”

Collaborative robots, also known as cobots, which share a workspace and direct physical interaction with a human operator, are an example of a technology that can help manufacturers continue to produce goods while keeping workers safe, according to Mike Cotter, director of digital product at Grand Rapids-based Feyen Zylstra LLC

“Some manufacturers don’t know about the benefits of collaborative robots and COVID-19 will really change the game and local manufacturing as manufacturers explore automation technologies like collaborative robots,” Cotter told MiBiz

Cobots were already on the rise before the coronavirus crisis. In 2019, revenue from the sales of collaborative robots grew by more than 30 percent, according to a report from the market research firm Interact Analysis. The cobot market is projected to reach $5.6 billion in 2027 through further development of new application scenarios and breakthroughs in technology bottlenecks, according to the data. 

Collaborative robots can work in close proximity to one another and their human counterparts while also helping to keep fewer workers more spread out on the factory floor. 

“There’s no six-foot perimeter as with robots, so this is a great opportunity for manufacturers to make gains with collaborative robots,” Cotter said. 

Manufacturers are also recognizing the need for their production lines to be more flexible and their customers to be more diverse. Many manufacturers throughout the state are rapidly changing their operations right now to address critical shortages of health care supplies. These redeployments call for flexible assets and the lessons learned today will help suppliers become more adaptable in the future, according to Cotter. 

“That’s where artificial intelligence can really help because, with AI, it can adapt pretty quickly,” Cotter said. 

Feyen Zylstra has already seen an overall uptick in activity from manufacturers that are ready to learn to survive in a post-crisis world, Cotter said. 

“I’ve been impressed with manufacturers for not only fighting through this crisis but actually taking the time now to look ahead and figure out how to be less vulnerable in the future,’” he said. 

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