Robots Put On A Show

May 9, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Designed Conveyor Systems (DCS) of Michigan is convinced that the use of automation and robotics in manufacturing is a more cost-effective, competitive alternative to moving manufacturing jobs overseas.

The company held a workshop recently to showcase a number of robotic solutions and explain the benefits of using automation and robotics rather than outsourcing manufacturing processes. The underlying message was that companies can stay competitive and stay local, too, with more automated processes.

More than 85 people representing 50 companies registered for the event, which featured laser robots, welding robots and palletizing robots, as well as displays of materials and equipment by some of DCS’s West Michigan suppliers.

DCS is an engineering firm that specializes in material-handling system design and turnkey integration, custom software development, manufacturing and robotics.

Among those exhibiting at the workshop were Benzer & Associates, Cognex, Dukane Communications Systems, Future Technologies, Laser Mechanisms, Lincoln Electric, Rock Interface, Neff Engineering and Miller Welding Supply.

President Rob Scott said it seemed like everywhere he looked in West Michigan, manufacturers were downsizing, closing their doors or moving operations overseas, which meant a shrinking customer base in the region.

“We’ve seen Steelcase, which used to be one of our good customers, lose half of their people. We used to do business with Haworth. So we ended up having to go all over the country to find business to grow our company.”

Two years ago the company diversified into robotics, targeting middle-tier companies and existing conveyor customers.

“We’re just an infant in the area of robotics, but we have the right kind of capabilities,” Scott said. “We have people that can program computers and PLCs that can support the robots. We have a machine shop so we can build the end-arm tooling for the robots. It was a natural thing for us to do because we could do the value added that was necessary.

“I think it’s definitely a thing of the future because robots can do the mundane work at high tolerance and do it with precision and consistency.”

DCS buys robots from manufacturers such as Fanuc Robotics and customizes them for a manufacturer’s needs. Robots can be used for the more dangerous, difficult or dirty jobs, and possibly save a company some money in insurance costs and downtime. They also can be reprogrammed to serve different functions if a plant operation changes, Scott said.

Scott said recent plant closings and the unemployment rate in West Michigan motivated the company to hold the robotic workshop so manufacturers could see how automated and robotics systems are viable alternatives to outsourcing.

“There’s no reason why Michigan should be the worst place in the country for employment,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to do better than that.”

A robot initially replaces jobs on the manufacturing floor, but it also might help a company stay competitive enough to keep a plant open, Scott pointed out.

“We’re not just losing jobs, we’re losing facilities. Everybody has to realize right now that if we don’t automate here, we aren’t going to lose a few jobs — we’re going to lose all the jobs. What we’re seeing is that some of our customers are actually selling more and producing more but still reducing jobs.

“It sounds negative in terms of jobs, but if companies don’t automate, they’ll disappear. It’s a lot better to eliminate a few jobs, move people around and create other kinds of jobs and keep the companies here. We definitely have that challenge here in West Michigan.”

Brian Hillier, regional automation manager for Lincoln Electric, said a lot of manufacturers are going overseas because the labor in this country is too expensive, so the ultimate goal is saving American jobs.

The people a robot replaces can be retrained for other jobs, he said.

“We could get jobs more automated and maybe put a less costly employee in front of a machine to load and unload it,” he remarked. “An analogy that a lot of people use is that in the year 1800, some 53 percent of Americans were farmers; by 1900, only 2 percent of Americans were farmers. So what happened to all those farmers? They went and they got trained for other things. We’re going through that right now.”

Mike Domagalski, an applications engineer with Rock Interface, said robotics makes manufacturing more efficient and saves labor rates on mundane types of jobs. As he sees it, no one really wants a mundane and repetitive job.

“Efficiency rates are higher because robots don’t take vacations. They have a higher degree of precision Are robots going to replace people? In some locations they will, but if I can make a better, more competitive, higher quality product consistently, hopefully those people can be moved into other areas of the business.”    

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