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With Re-shoring a Reality, US Industry Rushes to Embrace Automation

With the Trump administration's cuts to corporation tax said to have triggered a mass return of the manufacturing once outsourced to Mexico or China, US companies are turning to automation as a way of handling their expanded workload.

Photo: Automation: Saviour of manufacturing or nemesis of the labour force? (Shutterstock.com)
Automation: Saviour of manufacturing or nemesis of the labour force?
Photo: Automation: Saviour of manufacturing or nemesis of the labour force? (Shutterstock.com)
Automation: Saviour of manufacturing or nemesis of the labour force?

Perhaps unsurprisingly for an automation event, exhibitors at Cleveland's Automation Technology Expo (ATX) were uniformly bullish about the role robotics is set to play in the US manufacturing sector. Indeed, many at the event reported that business was already brisk, a development driven by the twin pressures of US companies re-shoring production to North America and a shortage of skilled factory workers in the domestic labour market.

Neither issue, however, seemed to faze Shon Stewart, Technical Business Development Manager for TSS Technologies, an Ohio-based specialist in automation and systems integration. Offering a somewhat optimistic evaluation, he said: "Here in the US, our workforce is shrinking, even as our manufacturing base is growing. This is something that needs to be addressed.

"While I hate to say it, this will inevitably involve replacing labour. Many of the displaced workers, though, will go on to more skilled and better-paying jobs, partly because automated equipment still needs to be maintained.

"I talk to a lot of people around the West Coast who are bringing their manufacturing back from Mexico or China and looking to manufacture here in the US. We can help them when it comes to automation, allowing them dispense with the manpower their overseas facilities relied on."

While Ken Johnson, an Applications Engineer with Promess, a Michigan-based manufacturer of sensing systems, was also seeing a surge in demand, he ascribed this as largely down to the review of US corporation tax initiated by the Trump administration. Outlining the sudden transformation of the sector, he said: "Every machine builder I talk to is being contacted by OEMs and asked to quote on new equipment and new projects and being given turnaround times of just two weeks.

"Many of these OEMs had been planning to produce new products overseas and had been at quite an advanced stage in terms of signing-off on designs and procuring equipment for their foreign plants. Then, when the tax reforms came through, they pulled the plug on all of that.

"Suddenly, it made more sense to do everything right here. As a result, we are seeing a lot of stuff coming back from Mexico and we are seeing a tonne of stuff coming back from China."

While the show's Midwest location inevitably saw the majority of attendees preoccupied with the surging US demand for automated systems, at least one exhibitor was looking at the broader picture. Indeed, for Erik Olson, Director of Sales for Hiwin, a Taiwanese specialist in motion control and systems technology, the demand for automated systems in the US was still dwarfed by developments elsewhere.

Outlining the wider global shift, he said: "A lot of the opportunities that we are seeing are actually coming out of Asia, where there has been a surge in demand for linear motion products from the electronics and semiconductor sectors. While we are certainly seeing increased activity in the US, this is being outpaced by the growing demand across Asia."

The level of increased activity in the US manufacturing sector, however, has clearly been substantial enough to have a knock-on effect to other sectors, with the haulage industry being a clear beneficiary. Acknowledging this, Johnson said: "The US commercial-truck market is gearing up for a substantial increase in demand. Manufacturers of trailers, tractors, steering gears – anything that that goes into a commercial vehicle in fact – are looking to increase production.

"A lot of suppliers and OEMs are gearing up for orders on account of all this manufacturing coming back to the US and somebody has got to move it all around."

While industrial automation has been the cornerstone of the automotive industry for decades, with most exhibitors citing the sector as, by far, their most important, there are signs of growing demand in a number of other areas. Indeed, at the show, two sectors in particular were deemed to have considerable potential – the aerospace industry and medical manufacturing.

Having already noted the emerging opportunities, Stewart said: "While car manufacturing has always been a huge market for automated systems, I'm now seeing a lot of growth in the life sciences – the medical device market. It's a very different market and there are a lot of restrictions, but there's clearly money to be made.

Photo: A perfect fit: A 3D-printed oxygen mask.
A perfect fit: A 3D-printed oxygen mask.
Photo: A perfect fit: A 3D-printed oxygen mask.
A perfect fit: A 3D-printed oxygen mask.
Photo: AR-enhanced systems monitoring.
AR-enhanced systems monitoring.
Photo: AR-enhanced systems monitoring.
AR-enhanced systems monitoring.

"The automotive sector is now hugely competitive as everyone has been servicing it for a long time, but the life sciences and electronics manufacturing – the wafer-handling type of stuff – are still comparatively new frontiers."

Johnson, too, was looking at opportunities beyond the automotive sector, saying: "For our part, we're getting a lot more involved in aerospace, while medical is also beginning to take off."

As well as new markets, new technology is increasingly taking centre-stage for many companies in the automation sector, with 3D printing seen as ever more ubiquitous. It is also seen as having a considerable role to play in meeting the automation requirements of both the aerospace and medical industries.

Detailing his own company's priorities, Frank Tomas, a Metrology Solutions Specialist with the Adaptive Corporation, an Ohio-based supplier of 3D-printing solutions, said: "For us, aerospace is number one, automotive number two, industrial products and equipment number three, while medical is probably now our number four."

As with many other exhibitors in the additive manufacturing sector Tomas was keen to stress that 3D printing has now evolved well beyond simply being a tool for modelling and prototyping and is now established as an economically viable manufacturing process. Expanding upon this, he said: "While a lot of 3D printer companies are still heavily focused on prototyping, we are looking more to work with companies that want to use the technology to create functional components. To that end, we have developed a system that outputs in 3D carbon fibre and can create very robust functional parts.

"The key word is 'functional' – dimensionally accurate, working parts. While many companies still tend to use a CNC [computer numerical control] machine to render a metal component, for a fraction of the cost and a fraction of the time you can 3D print a part."

Another to note 3D printing's shift from prototyping to production was Jason Belton, a Product Design and Development Representative for SMC, an Ohio-based contract manufacturer of components and finished devices for the medical and pharmaceutical industries. Reflecting on his own company's experience, he said: "Instead of just prototyping, we're now printing actual products. There is a big transition going on in this space right now.

"Overall, it represents a big saving on capital tools, while it also gives greater freedom in terms of customisation. In the case of oxygen masks, for instance, when it comes to fitting, there is always the problem that everyone's facial features are different. If we can print a mask tailored to the individual, rather than trying to create a universal mould, the comfort and effectiveness is hugely enhanced.

"That's not to say that 3D printing is not without its limitations. In terms of surface finishes and tolerances, for instance, it isn't quite there yet."

As well as overcoming a few lingering shortcomings as 3D printing enters a more mature phase, there is also a need to better accommodate it into the overall manufacturing process. Highlighting this particular requirement, Shawn Narey, 3D Printing Enterprise Sales Specialist for HP, the Pennsylvania-headquartered tech giant, said: "There is a need to redesign components when you switch to additive manufacturing. When you produce a part via injection moulding, say, you're worried about the flow, the gates, things like that.

"With 3D printing, you don't have to worry about any of that, so you can redesign the part to best fit the printer. That's the biggest change that additive is bringing in. In terms of other issues that need to be addressed, while we've narrowed the gap in terms of speed and economics, there are still areas where new materials need to be developed."

Alongside 3D printing, another technology set to have a considerable impact on the automation sector is augmented reality (AR), largely as an aid to manufacturing control and monitoring. Looking to take a lead here was PTC, a Massachusetts-headquartered software company, which was showcasing ThingWorx, an AR-enabled tablet-based control system, at this year's event.

Explaining the advantages of the system, Sales Engineer Debi Reese, said: "You can actually control a motor via the tablet's AR interface. As the currents are clearly visualised, it is easy to see if they need to be turned up or down.

"The system is continually gathering data via motor-embedded sensors. This allows it to assess the efficiency of the system in real time and initiate a predictive maintenance programme."

Photo: The ATX 2018: Looking to reassure manufacturers of re-shored business.
The ATX 2018: Looking to reassure manufacturers of re-shored business.
Photo: The ATX 2018: Looking to reassure manufacturers of re-shored business.
The ATX 2018: Looking to reassure manufacturers of re-shored business.

The 2018 Automation Technology Expo (ATX) took place from 7-8 March at Cleveland's Huntington Convention Center.

James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, Cleveland

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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