Published in Manufacturing
Byrne Electrical, which does all of its own injection molding, has invested in automation systems with an eye to increase the quality and throughput of parts. The investment also allows employees to move up into more technical jobs. Byrne Electrical, which does all of its own injection molding, has invested in automation systems with an eye to increase the quality and throughput of parts. The investment also allows employees to move up into more technical jobs. COURTESY PHOTO

Tight labor market drives ‘disruptive’ automation in plastics manufacturing

BY Sunday, November 10, 2019 07:00pm

The desire to continue to grow and keep production in West Michigan despite a crippling labor shortage remains the principal driver for Byrne Electrical Specialists Inc.’s adoption of automation.

The manufacturer of custom electrical wiring, devices and power strips has been headquartered in Rockford for 40 years. 

“Growing in the Rockford area, you reach a certain point where it’s difficult to find more personnel to work for you,” Dan Wierenga, automation manager at Byrne, told MiBiz. “In order to maximize efficiency, you really need to have each person be more efficient and more productive in what they’re doing.” 

Automation is a major enterprise at Byrne, which manufactures all of its own injection moldings and plastic components that pair with its electronics. The company has 800 employees, most of whom work at three facilities in Rockford and a plant in Lakeview; about 100 workers are employed at facilities in Mexico and China.

“The intention (of automation) has never been and never will be to displace existing employees,” Wierenga said. “It’s really just to increase quality and throughput and also provide better jobs for our employees.”

Recently, the company began using a series of robotic assembly cells from QC Conveyors, an Ohio-based industrial equipment supplier, to increase the production of electrical outlets. Using a trio of cells, the company assembles, inspects and labels the parts on a system of conveyors, which feature intermittent blacklight-backed vision testing, before moving the completed electrical outlets to a fourth cell for packaging, final testing and shipping. 

The entire process is controlled and monitored using a human-machine interface. 

At a cost of more than $1 million dollars, the cells allowed Byrne to repurpose 10 employees to other parts of the plant, according to Wierenga, who noted the project paid for itself in less than a year.

“That was the biggest and the first really significant piece of automation that we brought into Byrne,” he said. The system is used for “a legacy part that’s been around for over 25 years and they’ve always been built literally by hand. It was a tedious part to build, but it had stable volume, so we had very predictable annual production rates for it.” 

For Byrne, predictable annual usage or expected significant growth are important aspects in the decision-making process around automation, and improved quality, consistency and testing are implemented into all of the company’s robotic projects, Wierenga said. 

In addition to redeploying workers in other areas of the company, the use of automation has led to the creation of better technology-focused jobs at Byrne, including Wierenga’s team of four full-time internal automation employees. 

“With the automation team, we’re able to really steer automation to where it’s going to be most efficient,” he said. “We can handle a lot of these projects internally instead of having to pay an outside contractor, which in the long run saves Byrne money.” 


The automation cells at Byrne are an example of cobots, or collaborative robots, which share a workspace and physically interact with a human operator. Manufacturers have invested in cobots at an increasingly rapid rate over the past decade. 

At KAM Plastics Corp. in Holland, plastic parts are sent one by one down a small conveyor system to an employee, the robot’s collaborator, who runs the machine while feeding it parts, filling in any production gaps and finalizing quality control. The introduction of a cobot has reduced the labor cost of this historically multi-person process to one person. 

The company, which has annual sales between $20 million and $30 million making custom injection-molded parts for the automotive and furniture industries as well as military and consumer products, employs 180 employees at two manufacturing facilities in Holland and one in Mexico. 

“In probably the last year or two, we’ve jumped into some new areas (in automation) that we haven’t really been in before,” said Kevin Beckman, engineering manager at KAM Plastics. “One of them is the collaborative robot.” 

The cobot at KAM Plastics is a Universal Robots UR5 that’s designed to improve productivity and efficiency while relieving workers of particularly time- and energy-consuming production line tasks. The machine has a lifting capacity of up to 11 pounds, more than enough for most plastics, and a working radius of 33.5 inches.

The UR5 launched in 2008 as Denmark-based Universal Robots’ first product, and it helped to revolutionize the market for industrial robots. Last year, the company exceeded 25,000 units sold and revenue of $234 million, according to an annual report. 

The company is the largest supplier of cobots, commanding nearly half of global revenues, according to market research firm Interact Analysis. By 2027, the firm forecasts cobot revenues will reach $7.5 billion, up from nearly $500 million last year, and account for 29 percent of the industrial robot market.

Significant year-over-year robotics growth occurred in the plastics and rubber industries, up 37 percent from 2017 to 2018, according to a report from the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), part of the Ann Arbor-based Association for Advancing Automation.

The technology is gaining acceptance specifically among manufacturers who struggle to secure quality labor, Beckman said. 

“Behind automation, there’s always the question of what can we reduce or what ways can we reduce. The big one we focus on is labor,” he said. “If we can cut labor out of our processes, that’s a direct savings for us.” 

Universal Robots claims collaboration between a human operator and a robot is 85 percent more productive than if either one worked independently.

“We can take some of our operators that are more capable of doing bigger and better things out of the redundant activities that we can do with our cobot and then let them do something more important,” he said. 

Through quality control and labor reduction, the company commonly achieves a return on its investment in automation projects within a year, according to Beckman. 

“There’s always an efficiency gain as well,” he said. “Anytime you replace a person with a robot, you don’t have breaks, you don’t have lunch, and you naturally gained some efficiency as well.” 


Years ago, KAM Plastics dipped its toes into automation with simple “pick-and-place robots” that would lift parts out of injection molds and place them on conveyors that forward the parts into packaging, according to Beckman. 

These simpler robots still act as a common entry point to automation among plastics manufacturers, according to Mark Ermatinger, vice president of sales at Zeeland-based Industrial Control Service Inc.

“There’s such demand to keep costs down in the plastics world that if you can redeploy an employee that you already have and give them a better technical job to work on instead of tending a machine, that’s where we’re seeing some big payoffs,” Ermatinger told MiBiz

In addition to sparking increased efficiencies and reduced labor costs, automation is also being used in the “cut-rate” plastics markets to add value to products, according to Ermatinger. 

“It is a very, very competitive market and if you don’t have the automation to do some of that value-add, it’s hard for you to compete globally,” he said. “There’s been some reshoring back to the U.S. from China because the U.S. has figured out how to do some better molds that can do more parts at once. New technology engineering has allowed them to compete with some of the though labor rates in China and Mexico.”

Self-driving robots, which pick up boxes or pallets of plastic parts and transport them across the manufacturing floor, are also “pushing the industry,” according to Ermatinger. 

“Essentially, the robot would go to the machine, pick up a box full of plastic parts and then drop off some empties, and you could just let that run,” he said. “Then, when the boxes are getting full, the machine will summon the robot.” 

Ermatinger said ROI is particularly easy to achieve with self-driving robots in plastics manufacturing, an industry that has already embraced machinery that runs consistently for long hours. If a manufacturer runs three shifts, Ermatinger expects the robot would pay for itself in just two or three months. 

“It’s a disruptive technology that is going to disrupt other plastic injection people,” he said. “I don’t think anybody sees it coming right now, but I would predict in the next year or two years, (manufacturers) are going to have to do it. They won’t have a choice.” 

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