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Automation and Southern States Gain as US Production Goes Up a Gear

With labour shortages becoming endemic in certain US manufacturing sectors, production is migrating to the country's less employed southern states and to all-new smart factories, where intelligent systems are replacing hard-to-find skill sets.

Photo: Automotive auto-assembly as the US welcomes manufacturing back home.
Automotive auto-assembly as the US welcomes manufacturing back home.
Photo: Automotive auto-assembly as the US welcomes manufacturing back home.
Automotive auto-assembly as the US welcomes manufacturing back home.

Labour shortages are becoming severe in certain US manufacturing sectors, according to industry insiders at Chicago's Assembly Show. With factory bosses struggling to find enough skilled hands to keep the wheels of industry turning, many are turning to automation and ever-more sophisticated technology to fill the gap, while others are moving production away from the traditional industrial heartlands of the American east coast and Midwest to the southern US states in search of willing workers.

Indeed, many of the exhibitors at the three-day expo highlighted the struggle to recruit. Among them was Bruce Clark, the National Sales Manager for Fancort Industries, a New Jersey-based manufacturer specialising in components for the aerospace and military sectors. Citing certain extreme examples, he said: "In Huntsville, Alabama, there's literally no unemployment. There's a major contract manufacturer there who can't find labour. Even when he offers US$40 per hour, the labour simply isn't there."

Hiring Now

Another attendee bemoaning the current US labour shortage was Steve Phelps, a Sales Engineer for MWES, a Wisconsin-based engineering systems company. Outlining the scale of the problem, he said: "Unemployment is very low right now. You can drive down the street and see the signs saying: 'Looking for help', 'hiring now', 'immediate positions available'. Everywhere you go, they can't find enough people.

"As a result, I believe manufacturers are moving into areas where labour is maybe a little bit cheaper. You can see that down south is growing. It seems like a lot of the traditional heavy industries and the automotive manufacturers in the upper Midwest are starting to expand into the east coast and down south. North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi – these are the areas that are starting to grow, with a lot of guys building factories there."

The Automation Solution

Not all manufacturers, though, are responding to the problem by relocating, with many exhibitors keen to point out just how automation can address the labour-shortage issue. Detailing the sort of jobs that are especially suitable to be automated, Phelps said: "We're seeing a lot of spend on automation where people are in dirty, dusty environments – such as grinding and welding. We also see real growth in the electronics industry. A lot of companies, such as Foxconn, are making a move to the US. We're trying to help those guys automate, because a lot of what they do is done via manual assembly at present."

Many at the show were also reporting an increased sign of "re-onshoring" – manufacturing that had once moved offshore to cheaper parts of the world now returning to the US. While, in some instances, this creates opportunities for US factory machine suppliers, it's not a universal occurrence. According to Robert Litner, Sales Engineer for Motion Index Drives, a Michigan-based engineering firm, selling to companies looking to bring production back to North America may be a slow process.

Describing the issues his company has had to face, he said: "For a lot of the tier ones and tier twos that transplant production here, the equipment is coming in from overseas. It takes a little time to get into those facilities. It also depends on how the government is working with those deals. A lot of the deals require them to use North American content, but that doesn't always pan out.

Photo: Smart conveying from Flexlink.
Smart conveying from Flexlink.
Photo: Smart conveying from Flexlink.
Smart conveying from Flexlink.
Photo: Motion Index Drives: Helping to re-shore production.
Motion Index Drives: Helping to re-shore production.
Photo: Motion Index Drives: Helping to re-shore production.
Motion Index Drives: Helping to re-shore production.

"If they're the size of, say, Volkswagen in Chattanooga and you have a supplier park around that facility, that's a major opportunity for a North American business to go in and get the integration and the componentry."

Full Order Books

Even with companies transplanting equipment into the US from factories abroad, demand for new equipment is apparently booming. This saw many suppliers at the event reporting full order books and long lead times.

One such business was Indiana-based YRG Robotics, the master distributor for Yamaha robots in North America. Maintaining that the company was currently struggling to keep up with demand, Field Sales Automation Engineer Matt Roberts said: "The biggest hurdle we've had of late is that Yamaha has had problems sourcing enough material to make the robots. Now that's sorted, we're back on track with four-week delivery on products shipped directly from Japan."

For its part, YRG was showcasing a robot designed for high-speed pick-and-place operation, which was available at significantly lower cost than comparable systems. Outlining the benefits of the product, Roberts said: "Some of the high- speed pick-and-place robots are very expensive, coming in at about US$60,000-70,000. While our robot only manages about half the throughput of such systems, it's only $25,000, meaning that two of them working in tandem can more than compete.

Smart Factories

While many at the show were offering new machines as a way of improving factory performance – whether through increased speed or greater accuracy – others focused on "smart" systems that could be retrofitted into existing setups in a bid to improve production. Very much in the latter category was Gothenburg-headquartered Flexlink, a specialist in the manufacture of industrial conveyor systems.

Keen to emphasise how his company's products can seamlessly integrate into a smart factory setup, Sales Manager Todd Buchanan said: "We've just developed a system of line monitoring software that will link everything and give you live updates on how things are going. This can provide real-time throughput data for each station. All you need is to identify bottlenecks and streamline your production line."

Machine Learning

Overall, perhaps the most interesting presentation at the expo came courtesy of Michigan-based Process Champ, which was in Chicago to promote the use of machine learning as part of the overall manufacturing process. Introducing the company's own particular take on this, Sales Representative Chris Lutz said: "What we offer is a brand-new concept in terms of how to manufacture. Basically, we are introducing disruptive technology to assembly processing.

"In any manufacturing process, you have a certain quality standard – your typical automotive is at a three-sigma level, for instance. You basically have what we call an unstable process, where you're always chasing the data and trying to get to a nominal quality.

"For our part, though, we actually evaluate 100% in process using vision input data. We factor that data into our algorithms and simply analyse and identify what is the optimal fit based on the parameters that we have been given. We then send outputs to servomotors to optimise the positioning of the part. The resultant change is phenomenal."

Photo: High-tech hires: Collaborative robotics courtesy of MWES.
High-tech hires: Collaborative robotics courtesy of MWES.
Photo: High-tech hires: Collaborative robotics courtesy of MWES.
High-tech hires: Collaborative robotics courtesy of MWES.

The 2018 Assembly Show took place from 23-25 October at the Donald Stephens Convention Center in Chicago. The event featured 318 exhibitors and attracted more than 9,000 visitors.

James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, Chicago

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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