18 Jan 2016
US Plays Catch-Up on Automation in Bid to Assert Global Competiveness
A shortage of operators, a need to reduce lead times and a desire to compete effectively with overseas operators are all driving US companies to enhance their automation level, while further integrating robotics into their production lines.
A shrinking workforce, increased global competition and a surge in 're-shoring' among certain industries is driving North American-based manufacturers to spend on ever higher levels of automation in order to stay competitive, according to many of the robotics experts in attendance at Automate 2015. Overall, this four-day event showcased the latest in production technology, drawing visitors from across the US's mid-western industrial heartland and beyond.
Despite falling energy costs in the domestic market, American manufacturers are reportedly waking up to the benefits of power-saving technologies, while many exhibitors were showcasing 'collaborative' robots, devices able to interact safely with human workers, increasing productivity and reducing the need for space-hungry safety enclosures. As ever, manufacturers were also keen to claim they were meeting customers' demands for faster, cheaper machines capable of doing more for less.
One the key technologies being highlighted at the event was in the field of 'collaborative' robots, systems able to both interact with other robots to complete more complex tasks and, crucially, to safely share a workspace with human operators. James Cooper, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for the Michigan-based KUKA Robotics Corporation, said: "Certainly, collaborative technology is a hot topic in this business. More and more customers are trying to eliminate safety guarding.
"There's many applications where you want to use a robot to do some tasks, but you need a human there to do others as well. You want that human in the work cell working with the robot performing the task."
Denmark's Universal Robots is a leader in the collaborative robots sector. A spokesperson for the company said: "The big game changer here is that there are no cages around these robots. These robots can work alongside people without any guarding. They have a built-in safety system – if it hits something it stops. They're also all ISO-certified.
"Taking the robot out of the cage allows for so many more opportunities for automation. A lot of factories have a hard time fitting in a robot like this because normally you have to build a very big cage around it. It can't lift more than 10kg, however. If you start having heavier payloads, then the application itself starts becoming dangerous and you have to cage it.
"Of course, you've got to do a risk assessment. If you've got a blowtorch or a knife or something in use, then obviously you might want to cage that. It depends on the whole application, not just the robot."
Saving factory floor space by reducing the need for safety guarding is also possible when it comes to larger, more powerful robots. Brian Carpenter, a Software Engineer with Michigan-based Kawasaki Robots, said: "One of the big factors in the size of any workspace is safety. Traditionally, you have to have your fencing larger than the robot's reach. Now there are software technologies where you can safely keep the robot in a constrained area and you can reduce the extent of your fencing."
As well as reducing the size of workspaces, US manufacturers are also waking up to the benefits of reduced energy consumption, despite their low electricity costs relative to other regions. Highlighting this, Carpenter said: "We are seeing more and more of a 'green' focus. Our palletising robot, for instance, has a power regeneration function. When it decelerates, we're not dumping the power as heat – we're actually putting it back into the grid."
David Kaley, Industry Marketing Manager for Japan's Mitsubishi Electric, confirmed this growing interest in power-saving, saying: "For my customers, energy consumption is the number one or number two topic.
"When you get a peak in the hour, you're charged the whole hour at that peak. If you can find the spikes in your operation and smooth those spikes down, you can very quickly achieve payback.
"When a motor stops, it dumps energy back into the line and creates noise – harmonic distortion. If you don't do something with that then, eventually, the energy company is going to charge you extra. Our VFDs [variable frequency drives] and motion controllers can actually re-use that power before it gets back into the system.
"I think our European customers became interested earlier but, now that North American companies are seeing just how much money they can save, they've become very interested. You take a facility that has a US$100,000 per month utility bill, you can shave $200,000 per year off that. It's not unrealistic to expect that kind of a percentage change just by tweaking everything a little bit."
While energy consumption is of growing interest to US machinery buyers, some see other factors as being more pressing. Cooper said: "From what I understand from my global colleagues, concerns over energy consumption are more important in the Europe market than here.
"We're seeing quite a change in the market dynamics. We all hear about this ageing workforce, with more people exiting than entering the workforce. Now we're seeing more people who seem to be automating. This is because they need to produce parts and they can't find people to operate their machinery."
Kaley has also noted his customers' difficulties in finding qualified staff, saying: "Manufacturers can't seem to find enough skilled labour, so we're not trying to take away people's jobs. One operator can now run a whole machine. In the past, it'd be three or four operators, but those people just aren't available."
With a shrinking labour pool and relatively high wage costs, North American factories are under increasing pressure to produce more for less in order to remain competitive with overseas manufacturers, even in the context of historically low utility costs. That pressure is, in turn, being passed on to manufacturing machinery makers.
Michael Guinta, National Sales Manager for Macron Dynamics Inc, a Pennsylvania-based belt-technology linear robot maker, said: "Years ago, everything was very price-driven. Now it seems that efficiency and rate of production through the facility is the primary goal. They want to do everything as fast as possible.
"We have seen a lot of companies say: 'This process currently takes five seconds, but we want to do it in one to two seconds.' That seems to be the driving factor in the US.
"We have a seven-day standard lead time, which is very fast compared to our competitors. We are also customising our products to the nth degree in order to meet our customers' requirements. That's what we find the industry wants – highly customised solutions very quickly."
Charlie Harris, Regional Sales Manager for Paletti USA, a Pennsylvania-based aluminium extrusion maker, also noted a renewed emphasis on speed, saying: "We're seeing a lot of stuff coming back to the US. A lot of stuff that moved off to China is now coming back. As soon as the manufacturing organisations bring it back, they have to build a new factory. They need new guarding around the machine, so that's where we fit in.
"Customers are asking for quicker deliveries and they're looking for more creative solutions. Whereas before you would be able to get a four- to six-week lead time, now you can't do that. It's wanted in week two at the latest. You have to make sure you have the inventory to be able to meet that kind of request."
Hand in hand with reduced lead times and the pressure for faster production is the need to minimise down time. According to Kaley, customers are now using his company's energy monitoring systems to help minimise stoppages. He said: "If a machine suddenly starts taking more power, you know something is wrong and it's time to schedule some maintenance. It's the old saying: 'What's the most expensive kind of downtime? Unplanned downtime.'"
H Curtis Major, President of Harry Major Machine, a custom conveyor and gantry company based in Michigan, also sees customers increasingly looking for equipment that helps minimise interruptions. Citing the benefits of his company's cableless gantry systems, he said: "What's catching the attention of customers is if you don't have cable, you don't have to undertake maintenance on the cable. That cable is eventually going to wear out. When you're running 24/7, you can't shutdown production. When the cable breaks, you're under pressure to replace it."
The ramping up of manufacturing capacity in the US has exposed what would seem to be the use of outdated equipment, compared to the systems in use in other markets. Mark Takarabe, General Sales Manager with Japan-headquartered IAI America, said: "I have noticed that more high-speed and automated applications are in demand in the US, while pneumatic cylinders are also still popular here.
"In Japan, they're converting from pneumatic to all electrical, a development that means cycle time is shorter and there is no stopping for adjustments. With pneumatics, the life is shorter and there is also air leakage, something that costs money. Electrical is more efficient and saves on energy costs."
James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, Chicago