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First Person: Advancing Automation Technologies Represents Huge Opportunity for Small and Mid-sized Manufacturers

The Robotic Industries Association estimates that some 230,000 robots are now in use in U.S. factories, placing the United States second only to Japan in robot use. To find out more about this, the editor of Area Development recently spoke with Jeff Burnstein, president of the Robotic Industries Association, as well as president of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3).

Q4 / Fall 2013
AD: Large manufacturers like automakers have used robots in their manufacturing process for some time. Can you explain how mid-sized and even small manufacturers are using robotics today?

Burnstein: More and more small and mid-sized companies are realizing the benefits of automating their operations. These benefits include improved quality, productivity, safety, and speed, as well as cost reduction. As a result, they are better able to compete in the global marketplace.

AD: How are today’s robots different from the ones previously on the factory floor? Are they more intelligent?

Burnstein: There has been an explosion of new technologies introduced in the robotics field over the last several years. The robots themselves and automation software are all evolving to provide more utility to end-users. User interfaces are simpler; gripper technology has improved; better vision-guided systems have opened up robots to new manufacturing opportunities. Robots are now able to handle more complex and intricate tasks, which was not possible in the past.

AD: What specific jobs are robots performing at small manufacturing operations?

Burnstein: Robotics and automation technologies installed at small manufacturing operations are assisting employees in completing what we call the “dirty, dangerous, and dull” jobs. Instead of an employee completing a mundane or unsafe task all day, that same employee could be trained to operate automation equipment that can do that task in a safer environment. This leads to many benefits to the employee and employer, including higher job satisfaction.

AD: Besides the use of robots, are other types of automation technologies being used by mid-sized and small manufacturers today?

Burnstein: There are many types of automation technologies in use today — from programmable logic and linear controllers to CNC machines, sensor technologies, laser cutters, mechatronics, and machine vision systems.

AD: Is the cost of installing robotics and other automation technologies prohibitive for smaller manufacturers?

Burnstein: No. There is a huge opportunity for small and medium-sized companies to invest in and realize the benefits of robotic automation systems, especially because the costs of these systems have gone down dramatically over the years. Medium and small companies are indeed realizing the return on their investment. We have many examples of small companies that are now thriving because of automation. They can use automation to develop higher-quality products faster, leading to more business, which leads to the hiring of more employees. It’s a great cycle to be on.

AD: In addition to reduced labor costs, what are the advantages to a business employing robotics and other automation technologies?

Burnstein: The main driver is the need to compete, often on a global basis. Can certain tasks be automated in order to improve productivity and product quality? Can overall manufacturing costs be lowered by automating? Can the company respond to changing demands more quickly if they automate? Can the company find new customers if they automate (because they are now producing more products faster and with greater quality)? Have our competitors automated in order to gain an advantage? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, automation is likely to be considered.

AD: What are the risks to a firm of not using automation technologies?

Burnstein: If a firm that is not automating is losing business because of competitive pressures, then they risk going out of business. Marlin Steel in Baltimore is a great example of this. They used to bend wire baskets by hand, producing about 300 a day. Once they automated, they were producing thousands a day with higher quality and no injuries to employees. This allowed them to remain competitive, win new business, and ultimately add more and better (higher-paying and safer) jobs. Marlin is a great example of increased productivity and profitability through automation.

AD: Do you believe there will come a time in the future where robots will replace most people on the factory floor?

Burnstein: No. Overall, we believe automation has a positive impact on employment. The real threat to jobs is when a company is no longer competitive. In that case, the options are (a) go out of business, in which case all the jobs are lost; (b) outsource the jobs to another country; or (c) automate, in which case jobs are saved and the opportunity for growth exists. Of course, I’m just talking about the jobs inside a factory or business. When you include the jobs outside a factory, automation that helps keep a plant open also is helping keep open restaurants, gas stations, bowling alleys, and many companies that supply the factory - an entire ecosystem of jobs that might otherwise be lost.

AD: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Burnstein: One challenge manufacturing companies face is that they have open positions that remain unfilled because they can’t find employees with the right skills. We need to do a better job educating the work force and providing retraining programs to prepare people for today’s jobs. I think there’s a growing awareness of this need, which is why we’re seeing so much support for STEM education. But, we also need to do a better job of supporting community colleges and two-year programs that teach vocational skills because often these programs produce students with the practical, hands-on experience needed to work with automation technologies.

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