The manufacturing industry is rapidly approaching a place where only those companies that have implemented automation and robotic equipment will survive. With recent improvements to modularity, flexibility and return-on-investment (ROI), even the most resilient manufacturers have little reason to avoid investing in the technology.
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That was the takeaway message from the recent “Industry 4.0 Manufacturers Share Their Journey” live webinar, hosted by the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center-West and MiBiz on March 29, 2019. During the webinar, executives from New Troy-based Vickers Engineering, Inc. and Niles-based RedRabbit Automation, LLC candidly discussed both companies’ path to automation, while dispelling some common myths about the technology and its capabilities along the way.
FIND YOUR PATH TO INDUSTRY 4.0
Start by watching the online video replay of the webinar to hear how Vickers Engineering and RedRabbit Automation made their journey into automation.
To learn more about how you can begin your own Industry 4.0 journey, read about The Center’s Industry 4.0 Opportunity Assessment. It includes both financial/business questions and process/operations questions and the summary report your company receives highlights opportunities for improvement and a personalized technology implementation plan.
“Many times I encounter manufacturers who feel overwhelmed at the idea of implementing anything related to Industry 4.0 – it still feels so monolithic,” said Justine Burdette, regional director of the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center - West. “It doesn’t have to be. If using cobots is the thing that removes boring, repetitive tasks from your operators so they can do more value-added work, then start there. If you are plagued by maintenance issues, then start with sensors and pulling data from your machines that helps you predict and prevent maintenance downtime.
“This is what I love about The Center’s Industry 4.0 Opportunity Assessment. It includes both financial/business questions and process/operations questions and the summary report your company receives highlights opportunities for improvement and a personalized technology implementation plan,” she said.
Burdette points to the Industry 4.0 journey Vickers and RedRabbit have taken over the past decade as excellent examples of the pitfalls and opportunities that manufacturers face when it comes to adopting automation.
Prior to incorporating automation technology in 2006, Vickers Engineering generated approximately $10 million in sales and employed roughly 160 workers. Presently, Vickers has expanded to more than $50 million in annual sales and employs roughly 190 people. Tyler credits the company’s rapid growth almost entirely to automation.
“The bottom line is we wouldn’t be in the game without automation,” said Matt Tyler, chief executive officer at Vickers Engineering, a job shop manufacturer that serves the automotive, oil and gas, aerospace and a variety of other industries.
The Path to Automation
Vicker’s decision to automate was born out of concerns for safety. The company was confronted with a situation where it needed to move an extremely heavy component and the only solution was to automate.
“We decided to put a robot in play and we were scared to death,” Tyler said. “We knew nothing about robots, we didn’t know how to maintain them or how to program them. We thought our customer base was going to rebel. But we were wrong on every single point, famously. It was cheaper than we thought, it was easier to maintain than we thought, and it was more reliable than we thought.”
From there, Vickers began to automate more processes within their operations to a point where in 2010 it became strange to not automate a new project. The company’s throughput “went through the roof,” and the whole culture within the organization began to change, Tyler said.
Vicker’s embrace of automation has completely changed the talent make up of the plant floor, making the organization less susceptible to the talent crisis plaguing the manufacturing industry. Instead of recruiting young people to a traditional manufacturing environment, Vickers entices emerging workers with prospects of working on the latest automation equipment.
“We’ve seen a room before of young kids and we ask who wants to get into manufacturing and 40 hands stay in their laps,” Tyler said. “Then we said, who wants to get into automation and 40 hands went up in the air. That’s the kind of world we are living in. We are now attracting young people and a different form of workforce for a few years now.”
While Tyler acknowledges the company only hired 30 new workers since it began implementing automation, its payroll has doubled, allowing the company to attract a different caliber of worker.
“It’s just a different ball game,” Tyler said. “You’re less reliant on people showing up every day. If Jimmy comes in with a hangover, he’s still going to make rate and he’s not going to miss a quality check because it’s going to go through the process. We’re not perfect, but (automation) has totally changed the game.”
Vickers went so far as to spin out its own internal robotics integration team to form RedRabbit Automation, after seeing a hole in the market for qualified integrators. RedRabbit Automation now serves other customers as an integrator and manufactures a product line of its own modular automation cells.
Now Corey Carolla, who serves as the vice president of corporate development at RedRabbit Automation, travels the country educating manufacturers on the necessity of implementing automated solutions.
“Labor is going to be an issue always,” Carolla said. “The amount of people getting into the industry is falling and we need to get ahead of that. It’s a cultural change from a manufacturer’s standpoint (and) Vickers embraced this early on.”
Despite the increasing signs pointing to automation as the way of the future, some manufacturers remain hesitant, Carolla said.
One common pushback to automation often comes from job shop manufacturers that produce a large volume of different parts. Often times those manufacturers don’t believe that automation will yield enough return on investment with the ebbs and flows associated with that type of production.
However, RedRabbit Automation’s approach to automation was born out of Vickers Engineering’s reliance on the notoriously fluctuating cycles of the oil and gas industry. That led the company to develop robotic equipment that was designed from the beginning to be flexible, modular and redeployable.
“We treat this just like any piece of equipment,” Tyler of Vickers said. “When the project changes, we retool it…you don’t throw it away.”
The RedRabbit approach allows the whole automation unit to be moved across the plant floor with a forklift and reprogrammed within a day, Tyler said.
Some manufacturers also hesitate to add automation because they worry the same talent constraints that have pushed them toward the technology may impede their ability to find qualified technicians to operate and maintain the automation equipment.
Carolla is quick to dispel this myth, noting that manufacturers simply need to redirect their recruiting efforts to areas that cater to young, technologically-focused individuals. More specifically, he points to organizations like the FIRST Robotics Competition as a talent-rich environment.
“The entire workforce that you’re looking for is at one of these competitions,” he said. “It’s not that hard to show up at one from a private industry perspective and find the future of your workforce being showcased in one location that will support the cultural change that it will take to shift your company from traditional manufacturing and machining to automation. That transition scares people… (But) we have a group of young people who understand this and are already accustomed to this.”
Ultimately, the path toward automation is getting smoother. As technology continues to improve, manufacturers will increasingly be able to flexibly deploy robotics for a host of different projects. Forward-thinking lenders are beginning to provide capital to smaller manufacturers investing in automation equipment. Though the path toward automation may still be intimidating for some manufacturers, the transition will be increasingly necessary for survival in the coming years.
“All of us who are in the (manufacturing) industry now are in there for a reason,” Carolla of RedRabbit said. “It’s not called advanced manufacturing anymore because if you’re still there, you’re advanced. We need to think about things a little differently and talk about what it means to be in the industry.”