This waning year of 2019 featured a constant flurry of commentary about how the business world is being transformed by advanced manufacturing. IIoT, 5G, 3-D printing, AI, VR, revolutionary robots and cobots theyve all had gallons of real and virtual ink spilled about how theyre fundamentally changing the production and supply chain picture.
That commentary is perfectly true. Those giant leaps in technology make it one of the most exciting times ever to work in manufacturing. For big companies with plants like those included in the World Economic Forums Global Lighthouse Network of model Industry 4.0 facilities, its a brave new world in the very best of ways.
But when I talk to the small- and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs) that dominate the U.S. producer base, theres often a disconnect between their core concerns and all that glitz and glamor surrounding advanced manufacturing. Particularly in the SMM world, there are many central production jobs that just dont lend themselves to automation. Even with individual jobs that do, though, the mix of work can still make automation a non-starter. And even with work that can be automated, the reality is often that the financial justification simply isnt there to support spending on high-tech solutions.
Bob Jacquart, CEO and owner of Jacquart Fabric Products in Ironwood, Michigan, knows firsthand the barriers to automation for some producers. His firm employs 180 people and does both mass production and custom work, including playground canopies, pet beds, cooling vests, and winter apparel, along with rink pads for the 2009 U.S. Olympic Trials and custom acoustic panels for the Smithsonian American Art Museum. While custom jobs obviously dont warrant automation, surely the firms Stormy Kromer subsidiary, making the iconic felt winter hat, could benefit from it?
I sit on the Board of Directors at Michigan Technological University, and I asked the former Dean of Technology there to see if he could have a team come up with a way to make it robotically, Jacquart said. Their study concluded that it couldnt be done economically.
For other companies, the combination of work precludes the high-tech approach. At HM Manufacturing in Wauconda, Illinois, a machine parts maker of power transmission components, its the changeovers any adjustment in the size, style, material, or design of whats being produced that requires a reset of the production equipment that preclude automation. For HM, automation is difficult, said Nicole Wolter, the companys President and CEO. We do 11 to 12 changeovers a day it just doesnt work for that.
But even if the work fully lends itself to improvement with the application of advanced manufacturing technologies, money can stand in the way. It may be that the firm simply doesnt have the capital available to invest the sums it takes to install new systems. Or it could be an opportunity cost problem; for smaller firms, investing in the basics for growing the business usually makes a lot more sense than spending on high-tech equipment. Finally, it might simply be that labor is so cheap, automation simply isnt economically attractive. In rural areas of the country, where labor costs are lowest, that can be a very good thing, since the jobs are needed there.
A worker checks an industrial robot in a high-tech company.
For SMM executives who express concern about being left behind when they read about our burgeoning advanced manufacturing world, then, my first word of advice is to look frankly at the financials and the business fundamentals, and not to be afraid to conclude that Industry 4.0 simply isnt their answer right now.
But what can SMMs do to ensure their businesses arent left behind in the competitive environment, if automation isnt going to help?
The first is to invest in other ways. Jacquart, finding that he couldnt automate his way to higher productivity, instead improved the plant floor environment for his employees. We installed Vita-Lite full-spectrum lighting, and invested in premium chairs for our workers, he said.
Another option is to invest in smaller machine improvements. Legacy equipment can be vastly improved by upgrading subsystems to newer versions, or by updating control systems to more modern equivalents. One of the most under-reported advantages of the IIoT is the many solutions that are now on offer to improve the performance of existing equipment and manufacturing systems. That was the case for Wolters. There are lots of smaller manufacturers where high-tech isnt a fit just yet so in the meantime Ive invested in IIoT for the factory floor, she said. I believe its important to continue to update with technology as its evolving.
Providing ways for workers to improve their skills is equally important, and that applies to both current employees and potential future ones. Our new employees get the new technology and programming we do have, she said. But they may not get the basic operations. If older workers cant understand the newer technology, then pairing and cross training their jobs with the younger workers sets them up to learn from one another. She also works to educate the local community about manufacturing career opportunities. I feel like I genuinely have an advantage as a small, family-owned business, she mentioned. I can lead efforts at local high schools, offer shop tours, and bring on interns were currently offering four to six-week paid internships.
Collaborative robot technology.
A final focus should be on continuing to look at what technology has to offer. Todays industrial robots cost a fraction of what the early versions did, and modern computerized control systems are cheaper, more robust, and easier to program and maintain than ever. The kinds of jobs that robots can take on have increased dramatically, and with cobots and industrial exoskeletons entering the workplace, what used to be impossible or economically non-viable may soon be practical. Its important that SMM executives continue to stay abreast of what the high-tech world can do for their businesses.
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