Automation Adds To Firms' Bottom Line

August 6, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — For the third consecutive year, Designed Conveyor Systems of Michigan will host an Automation and Robotics Event to showcase automated solutions and robotic applications that West Michigan companies can incorporate into their manufacturing and distribution operations.

Twenty-eight vendors will have displays at the Sept. 11 event to be held at DCS headquarters at 4890 Kendrick SE in Grand Rapids. It's the largest number of vendors DCS has hosted in the three consecutive years it has held the event. About 500 people, possibly more, are expected to attend, said Amanda Bongard, corporate development manager for DCS, an integrator of turnkey material handling systems.

In addition to a variety of automation and robotics displays, educational seminars will be held throughout the day. DCS will demonstrate an automated guided vehicle running on a test loop. DCS also is building a test loop of a conveyor integrated into a robotics system; the conveyer will run boxes, while a robot will palletize and de-palletize the boxes. Four other companies are helping out with parts and pieces for the system, Bongard noted.

"The conveyor test loop is something we've never had before," she said. "Obviously, we've had the robotics before, but this is a much more realistic application of something a manufacturer would actually install."

The company started the annual event in 2005 so West Michigan manufacturers could see firsthand how automated systems and robotic applications are viable alternatives to outsourcing.

"It's all about ideas and seeing what's out there and exposing yourself to different things," said Mark Redmond, a sales representative with Michigan Fluid Power Inc. Like last year, Redmond will display a number of the Parker Fluidpower automation components his company distributes.

This year, the Council for Supply Chain Management and the Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association helped DCS spread the word about the event. DCS also placed a notice through the Michigan Manufacturers Directory. The company has made a lot more connections within its industry over the past year, and that has helped draw some attention to the event, Bongard said.

"We joined three or four organizations this year and we were not part of any industry organizations before," she said. "We've also started to go to trade shows and things like that."

It's not just large companies with expansive manufacturing and/or distribution systems that incorporate automation and robotics into their processes, said Marc Gordon, DCS vice president of operations. In fact, most DCS clients are on the smaller end of the spectrum, he said.

"One of our clients is actually doing a return-on-investment seminar," Gordon noted. "The automation that we did for them had ROI that was absolutely unbelievable. The ROI wasn't necessarily tied to labor; it was tied to the fact that they had to make an investment — either expand their facility or add our automation. So it was the difference between spending a few million dollars versus a few hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Gordon said DCS does "a real good job" of understanding what a client is trying to do as a business. They don't' approach a client with their catalogue and say: "Here's what we have to offer; pick out what fits for you."

"We approach from kind of a doctor-patient standpoint; we're going to evaluate your pains and see what tools we have in our toolbox to alleviate that pain," Gordon said. "Part of the purpose of the automation and robotics show is exposing clients to these tools and generating discussions about them."

DCS project managers work directly with customers from the initial sales contact, through engineering studies and systems design and through onsite project management, installation and support services. DCS buys robots from original equipment manufacturers and customizes them to fit a manufacturer's needs.

Manufacturing and distribution jobs that are very repetitive, mundane, dirty or dangerous to human health and safety are ideal for replacement with automation and robotics, Gordon observed. A lot of paint-booth applications, for instance, employ robotics so people aren't exposed to fumes. The potential benefits include savings on insurance costs and downtime. Robots are getting smaller and more cost effective; there are robotic applications today that nobody would have thought of five years ago, Gordon observed. Most of what DCS is doing with robotics is in larger-scale palletizing applications, he said. 

It's not necessarily true that the more automation a company has, the fewer employees it needs. Bongard recalled that when one DCS client put in three new palletizing robots, nobody was laid off — they were just shifted to other jobs.

The way DCS sees it, automation allows a company to expand its capacity without having to add employees. DCS has, for example, made some changes in its in-house software to automate parts of the design processes. The company didn't do that as a cost-saving measure but to enable it to take on more projects with the same amount of engineers, Gordon said. 

Automation frees employees up for other jobs within the plant, Redmond said. When a robot is brought in, it may replace a repetitive job that an employee used to do all day long, but that employee can be retrained for something else, he said. The work force is changing; people in the work force are going to need more specialized training and different skill sets, he noted.

"Automation is all about throughput," Redmond said. "The more product you get through your business with the amount of people and assets you have at hand, the more that goes right to the bottom line."

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