Automated Systems Suppliers Struggling to Meet Booming US Demand
Staff shortages, rapid reshoring and the expansion of the US economy have all combined to spur a surge in demand for enhanced automated systems in many North American industries, according to exhibitors at Minneapolis' ATX expo.
Unsurprisingly for an automation-themed event, talk at the Minneapolis ATX expo was largely focused on how US manufacturers are increasingly turning to robotic systems in order to sustain the required levels of productivity. Overall, this increasing advocacy of automation was seen as stemming from three key factors – the US economy having entered an expansive phase, companies reshoring production back to North America and a shortage of skilled factory workers.
For Shane Waskey, President of Mechatronic Solutions, a Minnesota-based automation consultancy, the key driver was the lack of appropriately qualified staff. Expanding upon this, he said: "It's the labour shortfall that's the real big issue and the thing that's making companies turn to robotics in order to remain competitive. In fact, any business that's not considering such a move runs the risk of falling behind."
Waskey's words were echoed by a Ryan Murray, Sales Representative with Midwest Machine Tool Supply, a 71-year-old Minneapolis-based distributor of mechanical and pneumatic industrial systems. Emphasising it was a development that had been forced on many operators, though, he said: "While a lot of companies would love to still be able to pay relatively low-waged operators to do labour-intensive operations, they simply can't find enough people."
Will Meis, an Application Engineer with another Minneapolis business – Air Automation Engineering, a specialist in precision automation systems – however, saw the greater use of robotics as being complementary to the maintenance of a human workforce. Outlining his view, he said: "It seems to me that demand for workers is still rising, with many companies seeing pairing human operators with robotic systems as the best way to maintain production efficiency.
"Frequently, businesses are resorting to sub-automation, streamlining production lines by jointly deploying human operators and automated systems as a means of optimising production throughput."
AI and Machine Learning
As well as making up for labour-force deficiencies, increasingly sophisticated production machines may also be able to open up new possibilities for manufacturers. Essentially, the automation of tasks previously deemed too complex for anything other than human workers is now regarded as possible due to the ever-more sophisticated control systems coming onto the market.
One such system, showcased at the event, came courtesy of locally based i4 Solutions, a specialist in machine vision systems. Giving his view as to the intrinsic link between such systems and machine learning, company President Brian Durand said: "Right now, everybody is talking about deep learning – in fact, there's more people talking about it than actually doing it as it's all still very new.
"If such a system comes bundled with traditional machine vision, that's probably your best bet. If your business is faced with an issue that traditional machine vision is not appropriate for, though, then maybe deep learning is something to explore, but it's not easy yet."
Mike Seager, Packaging Segment Manager for QComp Technologies, a Wisconsin-based developer of robotic packaging systems, had also been working with clients on applying artificial intelligence as a means of solving complex automation problems. Reflecting on his experiences to date, he said: "We're developing a de-palletising system right now that uses 3D vision, but it also incorporates a self-learning function. This means that we can set it up to scan products as they pass through. It will then learn from that and automatically implement the same protocols the next time it's in an analogous situation."
As well as being able to tackle more complex tasks, increasingly smart machines are being used to catch reject parts before they reach the customer, according to Midwest Machine's Murray. Explaining how this works in practice, he said: "Schmidt, the German power transmission company, has software that works via a load cell integrated into a press ram tip with an encoder, allowing linear position to be verified. It also offers controllers that can actually generate a feedback curve for every part, so you can monitor force over distance as that part is being assembled, which allows you to do check the tolerance of individual components."
Another major talking point at the expo was collaborative robotics, something that QComp's Seager, in particular, saw as not living up to much of the current hype. Detailing the reasoning behind his cynicism, he said: "From our viewpoint, it's fairly slow. When people want to use a collaborative robot, they want to use it in a way that doesn't see them lose rate capability because the collaborative technology can't keep up.
"Right now, the collaborative market is really more in machine tending, door opening and small assembly work – areas that don't necessitate the use of sharp objects or having to move at a high speed."
Long Lead Times
While many at the event clearly welcomed the reshoring of business not so long ago handled in Mexico or even further afield in Asia, there was a general consensus that this development had brought with it one particular problem – rapidly lengthening lead times. Digging down into this challenge, John Skaltas, Business Development Coordinator for Schneeberger, a Massachusetts-based pioneer in the linear technology field, said: "I've been around a long time and I remember the days when there was a lot of manufacturing going on here, then it all went offshore. Now, though, we're seeing it all coming back.
"In combination with the growing domestic economy, this reshoring has triggered huge demand, with our order books now very full – a development not without a real downside. Basically, our lead times – and those of the industry in general – are now the longest the market has ever seen. While it's good to see the industry back in full flow, it's bad that the lead times are now so long that we're inevitably going to lose customers."
While companies were clearly concerned as to the long-term implications of this phenomenon, some seemed relatively confident that they were well positioned to benefit from it. One such business was Midwest Machine, which viewed its status as a distributor for Hiwin – a Taiwanese manufacturer of motion control system technologies – as a clear asset in this particular environment.
Illustrating just why this tie-up was working to its advantage, Murray said: "When it comes to linear motion control, a lot of the competition have delivery times of nine to 18 months. So, if you're a company that's just come up with a design and would like to have a machine built and running in three months, those things don't correlate.
"Hiwin, however, has positioned itself very well. There are certain products they build at max length and keep in stock. So, when a customer contacts us and needs a single axis robot to shuttle something back and forth, for instance, and they've checked with so-and-so company and they can do it but not until next year, then we can talk to Hiwin and, in three to four weeks, we will have delivered the product to them."
ATX 2018 took place from 31 October-1 November at the Minneapolis Convention Center. The event featured 500 exhibitors and attracted more that 5,000 visitors.
James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, Minneapolis
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