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Published in Manufacturing

Q&A: Continued need for manufacturing automation provides runway for growth

BY Wednesday, December 14, 2022 08:13pm

A growing number of West Michigan manufacturers are having conversations about the role automation can play in helping mitigate their persistent and ongoing labor challenges, says Joe Dyer, president at Disher Corp., a Zeeland-based engineering, consulting and product development firm. He tracks data that show the robot density per 10,000 manufacturing workers in the U.S. continues to lag other markets like Korea, Singapore and Germany. This suggests “we have a runway in front of us” for continued adoption of automation technologies, Dyer said in a recent interview with MiBiz

As interest rates keep going higher, is that affecting clients’ appetite to make capital investments in automation and other manufacturing technologies? 

Joe Dyer COURTESY PHOTO

Yeah, we are starting to see that. People are a little bit more cautious with the economic outlook. There have been some pauses on capital investments due to (the cost of) money and due to the economic outlook, but I would say there’s still cautious optimism. The integrated supply index still has a positive outlook for the long term and just a very slightly negative output for three to six months in the short term.

If companies are starting to pull back, how do you see that affecting the economy next year? 

If there was any bit of contraction, I think it’d be really shallow. I still think there’s a pretty positive outlook for 2023. 

What does that mean for Disher in the year ahead? 

Part of our business is helping to fill manufacturing technical roles for manufacturers here, regionally and nationally. We’re seeing continued gaps in terms of labor, credentialed and non-credentialed. That’s not going away. I think we’re going to see an increase in adoption and more of an acceleration of adoption of automation technologies. But as we’ve worked with our customers on the Disher side, we’ve recognized that there’s still a gap in how to adopt certain technologies with folks that have been in the industry for a number of years and have ‘always done it this way.’ Now that there’s less people around, some manufacturers are being forced to at least start asking those questions, even if they’re not fully adopting automated technologies in parts of their business. 

What are some of the ways you’re helping manufacturers realize the value in automation as part of a solution to the labor challenges? 

I keep beating this drum — and I have for years and years — but lean principles are not going away. The discipline of being able to understand what is value and non-value added work is still really important. Moving boxes around in a plant, you have to do that. It’s also non-value added work to the end consumer, whether that’s a business or consumer product. For us, we’re trying to be champions of providing value by taking those non-value added things, which are technically referred to as waste, and trying to (create a) shift. 

Sometimes, that’s easier said than done in terms of being able to automate it. But, how can we take some of that and then put that labor back into the value parts of the process? Because it’s still creative and innovative things that humans are just really good at. You’re trying to eliminate as much waste as possible and then whatever’s left over, you’re trying to automate it to get people on to creative work. I think people are starting to get that. 

If you were to look into your crystal ball, what new technologies do you think have the most potential for manufacturing? 

I think there’s some interesting things going on that we’re just on the cusp of with some of these A.I. technologies. There’s a vision system that uses it right now. We’ve done some work in some different types of A.I. and developed some of our own models and things. … I do think that we’re going to see an acceleration of that, but the hard part is it’s almost the same thing as that Industry 3.0 robot adoption. How do you adopt these technologies in a way that’s going to bring real value to your organization? That’s the tricky part. I think we’re right at the beginning part of seeing how manufacturers can use some of these tools. It’s very nascent right now for how we can apply them, but I think over the next year, we’re going to start dipping our toe more into what that means. By the end of the decade, we’ll see a transformation, I think, in how some of these technologies are going to be used and adapted.

As you’re thinking about and preparing for next year, what is keeping you up at night?

The inflationary environment. For anybody that’s leading right now in the business community, chances are, they’ve never led through a really high inflationary environment. Or if they have, it was a very long time ago. There’s a little bit of uncertainty for business leaders to go, ‘OK, well, what does that mean for my business?’ Everybody’s going to have to answer that question.

Read 2473 times Last modified on Wednesday, 14 December 2022 20:31
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