Automation Integrations – Positioning for The Future

Allan: Today, we’re sitting down with Nathan Desrochers, an automation engineer for factory automation solutions providers Axis New England. And we’re talking a little bit about integrating robotics into your production line, and what the future of automated technology looks like. And how pairing robotics with modular inspection can be easily achieved to go lights out in your inspection process. Nathan, how are you doing today?

Nathan: I’m doing good, Allan. Thanks for taking the time and inviting me to come on your show today. So my company, Axis New England is a distributor for automation components. We’ve been around for 25 years. We’ve got about 50 people headquartered in Danvers, Mass. We’ve seen a lot of growth in manufacturing in New England.

Traditionally we’ve sold to OEMs that make semiconductor equipment and med-device equipment and that kind of stuff. In the past 10 or so years since we started working with collaborative robots, with universal robots in particular, we’ve seen a huge uptick in our sales to end users – the machine shops and smaller and medium manufacturers because this technology so much easier to use. It’s been a huge topic across the industry that you see everywhere you go: It’s collaborative robots. It’s the hottest buzzword and everyone’s talking about how this is going to be a multi-billion-dollar industry in the next five years just because robots could collaborate closely with people both on a programming interface level and also on an actually working alongside them level.

And so, that’s the thing we’ve seen about universal robots. That they’ve been so much easier to use than any other products that we’ve worked with, that these smaller companies with lower volume production can still get involved and still start deploying robots themselves. Versus having to have a huge automotive production team like GM might have.

How’s the country looking at robotics and manufacturing today? This year has been a big year for robotics in general. I was just looking at some stats earlier before we sat down and sales of robots were up 7 percent in the first half of the year (2019). That’s like almost 17,000 robots. Another stat that I read was that there’s been 180,000 robots deployed in America since 2010. So that’s a huge number, especially when you think about how people are talking about industry moving elsewhere and all that stuff. Now you hear that the robots continue to grow in America. I think to bring manufacturing back to America is going to rely on our ability to deploy robots successfully. And a big part of that is as technology gets better, as robots get easier to use, we can start targeting some of that 80% of production (you know, the 80/20 rule) is more on the lower/medium volume side. The number one consumer of robots this year was automotive. They were up 83 percent year-over-year in terms of robots purchased, but that’s sort of the outlier, right? That’s the 20% of production that makes up the highest volume. Where the rest of the production and the country, especially here in the New England region, seems to be lower/medium volume. And if you look across the country, I think it’s a lot more niche. That’s what America does really well. It’s not that we’re making 10 billion needles like you might get from a factory in China.

With the exception of automotive, we’re more about the lower, medium, higher quality, higher precision. As you know Aerospace here in New England, Aerospace, medical device, semiconductor, etc. are our markets here and it’s really important to be able to be more efficient, while still maintaining that high level of quality. And so, as robots get easier to use we’re able to actually deploy these lower and medium volume applications. And that’s something we’ve seen a lot here in New England.

Allan: Right, right. That’s pretty awesome. Who are your most successful customers? What about them made them the most successful? Where are you typically seeing the most interest in the robotic sides of where automation could be and things like that?

Nathan: Yeah, the most successful customers we see are the ones who have a couple savvy engineers who are willing to take a new technology and learn how to use it because you don’t need to design this massive machine anymore with guarding. You don’t need to go to a two-week training class to learn how to program the thing. You know, if you have a mechanical aptitude to design fixtures and jigs, and an ability to spend a day at a training class and play around with a tablet, then you can get automation up and running. Those are the types of customers who have that type of mechanical in-house know-how, but maybe not a dedicated automation team. Those are the ones who have been more successful, because in the past they haven’t deployed any automation yet, so this might be their first go at it. But if you’ve got guys who are programming CNC machines, designing tooling more often than not, they’re totally capable of doing something like this and then you can double, triple, quadruple their production, because they can now oversee a fleet of robots. So, we’ve got lots, especially in that medical device space around here where you’re making different needle parts or knee implants and stuff and there’s a lot of secondary operations loading presses, loading CNC machines, laser markers. Those are the types of things that the successful customer has and then the type of person who can really take advantage of the robot.

And to your question earlier, the user interface I think has changed from not even being a user interface to actually having an ability for a normal person to pick this thing up and use it. And of course, like I said with these automotive robots, these high-speed robots, those are typically still done program the same way that they’ve been programmed for many years, where you’re writing code on a computer. And we do a lot of these for some of our higher volume customers, where you’re getting on a computer and you’re actually typing away a script of commands and you’re designing. This is a piece of automation that you’re building, but you know with some of the collaborative technologies we work with like universal robots, it’s more of a drag-and-drop interface that anyone could pick up without having to write one line of code and they could pick and place a part into a machine in 20 minutes and have it running production. So that’s pretty cool.

Allan: Yeah, definitely. So it seems like the ones that are the most successful are the folks that have the personnel that went from, designing tooling and doing their machinist work, but have the ability to be able to step back and say, “How can I automate my own job and be in charge of a higher production of what I used to do, singly?”

Nathan: Exactly, and those people are better equipped to understand how the process works than anyone. So now if you put a tool in their hands, where they can say, “I know how this process works, now let me just translate that into a machine,” that’s a perfect fit. And there’s always one or two guys like that at any company who have the initiative to go and do something like that.

Allan: Got you!

Nathan: And so that’s what I look for, you know, because I travel around the state every day looking at these different types of shops and factories and, I always meet one or two guys like that at every shop. And so, my goal is to go in with them, help them pick out some applications that seemed like a good fit based on my experience. The medium volume size of parts and help them figure out what’s a good place to start. And usually if I see a guy like that, I feel confident that these guys are going to take advantage of the robot for sure.

Allan: For sure. Why do you see robotics and, like, our modular inspection system like Inspection Arsenal® to be such a valuable player together?

Nathan: Well, you know, I got introduced to Victor, who’s one of your senior engineers about six months ago at the Eastec Trade Show, and what he described to me at the show was that “Oh, we make this tooling to help people. We design custom tooling for for CMM machines.” And I’m so used to seeing CNC machines and like CNC mills and lathes, or something like a bend break press, a laser marker. Those type of applications where that’s actually cutting the part, but every single one of those parts and, back to my comment earlier about precision and quality, every single one of those parts needs to get cut and if you want to have the quality, they all need to be measured. And so, what happens to those parts after they’ve been cut? Are you trusting your machine to run at that same level or is someone still going and measuring these with a dial indicator or micrometer or something? And if they are, although you were able to automate the production of it, there’s still some advantages to be gained in a mundane repetitive job. That person could be doing something more interesting and engaging. It’s a good opportunity to automate something else. And so, I thought at the time that this was a great conversation to have, to see how we could get involved. And when I came over to your shop the first time, when I saw you have this cool, I almost think of it, when I describe it to other customers, I talk about it almost like a puzzle piece the way they fit together. And then one thing you always look for in automation is, ‘Can we locate these parts? Can we find them in the same location every time?’ And when you have a precision machine puzzle piece type of fixture like you guys have, you’ve already closed the gap between having a part loosely in the table and having something that’s rigid and fixtured. So, now we’ve got a universal interface basically, where the robot can pick this puzzle piece. It could have any piece on it, the robot doesn’t care, and load it into the machine. And so, you could have someone very easily build out a modular pallet or grid of hundreds or dozens of these puzzle pieces with parts on them, walk away, come back to a completely inspected system hours later, depending on how long the CMM machine or inspection machine takes to do its work. So, I thought that was a perfect fit because you guys already have basically perfected that side of the business. All that remains to be done is to allow the robot to pick that and place it into a machine and that’s something that is just as easy as designing a custom gripper, which is something that we’re working on with Victor right now. So, I’m excited to see where this partnership goes over the next months or years because I think it’s a whole untapped area. I honestly don’t have any customers loading CMM machines right now, but I know that every single one of them has a room with a granite surface plate and a CMM machine on it that needs to be tended so that’s –

Allan: They would immediately see the value, yeah.

Nathan: Yeah, for sure. So I think that’s huge.

Allan: Yeah, you actually made a great point earlier, where you’re seeing a lot of the upgrades in technology and automation, and things happening on the shop floor and the cutting tools and learning and that’s actually where we stand a lot of the time too. We see these bigger, better machines, bigger, better technology, as far as software goes, better fixturing, such as the Pitbull Clamp that Steve actually invented so many years ago, changed the game for running CNC machines and things. But now because you see such faster production coming on the shop floor, we’ve created this monster, which is this bottleneck in inspection. So, we’re cranking it up, [on the shop floor] and then we’re not doing anything to help to make the inspection go any faster. So, it only makes sense that the natural progression as you begin to create this higher speed production, you can’t just not keep up with that same level of technology throughout the entire production line or through the entire process.

Nathan: Right, and I think it all comes back to ”Yeah if we can quickly and easily deploy a robot on a machine”, you’re right, now we’ve created, like you said, we have a glut of production that needs to be inspected and, well, if we can basically recreate the success we had on a CNC machine and I would imagine for less money and in an easier startup time just because the tooling is designed really well, you could easily get something automated and running in the inspection side of the business too. And that’s where I’m optimistic about seeing this go. And frankly I bring this up to customers all the time. This is just another area that we can look at, another place that we could help you guys automate, so it’s cool stuff.

Allan: Definitely.

Nathan: The king in robotics right now is industrial robots just because of all the automotive and these higher volume industries. We see the most robots being deployed in there. But like I said, that’s not the biggest growth area. It’s the shops like you see where we’re doing medium volumes. And now if you’re cranking out even more and those shops can grow because of the inventions of Steve or something like a universal robot, well now you’re faced with, “We need to hire more people. We need to bring in more production. We need to bring in more business” and a lot of people in New England are having trouble staffing up and keeping these machines turning and cutting parts. And so, when you have an expensive machine that’s creating value for you and if you can’t have someone running it, it’s not worth anything.

Allan: Absolutely.

Nathan: And likewise with these expensive inspection machines. If it’s not actually measuring something, it’s not helping you out, it’s not helping you grow your business. So, if you can have a way to get in and automate both of these, well now your business can continue to grow. We see it everywhere, where people are adding robotics, it’s allowing them to hire more people. And so I think people are concerned sometimes that automation is going to replace jobs. But, especially in New England, I don’t think we have anything to worry about because everyone here has certainly a high level of skill. We have a lot of skilled workers here. And those people are our best at doing the the jobs that require thought, the more quantitative jobs, the jobs that require you to think and learn and make decisions, which is not really what the robots are going to take advantage of.

Allan: Right.

Nathan: That’s not something that robots are going to be able to do.

Allan: There’s no emotional labor involved with a robot, right?

Nathan: No, no, and we see that people continue to retire as well.

Allan: Absolutely.

Nathan: And so we need to back fill these jobs and I think that’s where we’re only setting ourselves up for more success by investing in robotics over the next couple of years.

Allan: Yeah, absolutely. Back filling the jobs is huge. And what’s one of the things I talk with people about a lot as well, you know, in Massachusetts alone as of last year, for every 400 people that were retiring out of the industry every year, we’re seeing 75 new people come in. And, every programmer that I know has gray hair and is getting ready to –

Nathan: Yep.

Allan: To retire in like five to ten years. So, we definitely need help as far as more bodies and more capable operators to come into the industry. But if we don’t start seeing kind of an uptick in that, we have no choice to go with robotics. To be able to keep up with the demands.

Nathan: I think the workforce that’s entering the market now, and actually I was at a Mass MEP Industry 4.0 Conference a couple weeks ago, and I was presenting and I made a comment about having a gray hair problem, and then a gentleman stood up from the audience to ask a question. He was like, “You know, this is coming from one of these gray hairs…” and I kind of felt bad, but he echoed what I said, which is, yeah, he doesn’t feel like he has a good contingency plan in place for when these folks who work with him retire. But the fact of the matter is, every kid has an iPhone, any kid in high school will pick up any new piece of technology and make it work and learn it in two seconds. So, if you can turn automation and machinery into the same level of ease of use that something like your iPhone has, that’s what these kids coming out of trade school and out of college are going to be able to really excel at because they have that desire to work with technology. And so, the more we can make robotics and automation work like that for them, the better they’re going to be to really kick butt in their new jobs.

Allan: Right, I think it’s even more than a desire. I think it’s more of a… It’s kind of just like a systemic, just natural.

Nathan: Yeah.

Allan: They’re just naturally going to say, “Oh, go over and do it.” and not have to be taught just the fundamentals of how computers work. Because think about as computers have grown over the industry or across all industries really over the years, and you have the older generations that had to learn them, they would take on a job that they have to now learn a new platform, rather than a pad and paper to be able to do their job with. Whereas we’re with the younger generations, they’re having to come in and take on this platform and then they’ll just learn their job.

Nathan: Yeah.

Allan: You know, I think it definitely sets itself up for the next generation where, like I said, this systemic use of computers and technology is just bread into us naturally now just as a society.

Nathan: I don’t want to scare people into thinking that, oh you have to have like these young, sharp folks at a school to take advantage of automation either. I’ll share a story. I have a customer in the southern Mass area who – he’s been with this one particular company for I think 30 or 40 years. And he started in the tool room and working Bridgeport machines and he said at the time in the 70s/80s, CNC machines were starting to come into the market and a lot of his co-workers would refuse to learn how to program the CNCs because they didn’t like all these CNC machines. “They’re going to take away my art and what I do best and I don’t, why would I invest in something that’s going to replace me?” Well, lo and behold, he invested in learning that because he thought, well, I can set myself apart from the rest of my colleagues and those people went on and maybe found other jobs. But he’s risen through the ranks at this company because he saw the value of learning how the CNC machines worked and now this company has literally like 200 CNC machines. And he’s told me he feels the same way about this robotic technology, where he’s invested in learning how the robots work. He’s deployed four of them at his company doing things like, one of them recently is loading a very small, it’s like a diaphragm valve, into a CNC machine, it’s a lathe. So, he loads and unloads that. He does a packing and kitting application. He does a couple other CNC machine automation applications and he’s kind of become that automation guy because he has that mindset of “I can learn this technology and I can continue to grow.” He’s a 60 something-year-old guy, who’s really become their automation Guru and he’s done, in two years, he’s done four robots, which is a pretty reasonable pace. But I’ve also had companies where, you know, you have one guy who is sort of the automation manager and he’s done 20+ robots on different machines throughout the factory. And so it can be as small or as big as it needs to be based on the company. 

Allan: For sure.

Nathan: But, it’s easy enough to use that anyone can really pick it up. But I think it will be important to have this type of technology to continue to get people interested in this field.

Allan: I think you’re right. I like the fact that you said he had related it to his art and being an artist and grasping the concept of using the CNC machine as just another platform for art. And I believe that the future is all about the artists. And you don’t have to be a painter, or a sculptor, or a machinist, or anything to be an artist. Just taking your resources that are available around you and creating an experience for the world or for your customers and I think that everybody that’s really successful, no matter what industry they’re in, the artists are the one that prevail. Absolutely.

Nathan: I think so. Well, it really says more about passion than anything. That’s what that means to me.

Allan: Yeah.

Nathan: For sure.

Allan: Yeah, and you know, sure, you get paid to do this job, but anybody can pay a painter to paint a picture.

Nathan: Yeah.

Allan: But the painter is going to put his expression in there and he’s always going to give you more than what he’s paid for, maybe not always, but if he’s in the right conditions, that’s when that artistic and creative drive can really come out. And the point I’m making is automation allows you to take the mundane jobs, the day-to-day jobs, and move them out of your mind, and it allows you then to be able to use your mind for more creative energies and more future thinking and future positive technologies that you could be dreaming up and discovering.

Nathan: Yeah, I couldn’t have put it better myself. That’s a really good way of conveying that. I think that’s something that I always try to explain to customers. It’s exactly what is going to allow them to have the best employees and have people who care about the job, it’s when you can take that mundane stuff out of their hands and allow them to do things that they actually feel more passion for.

Allan: What would you consider the more ideal conditions in, you know, in a particular shop or…?

Nathan: Yeah, I think good places to consider automation, it has a lot to do with volume. I know I said earlier, it doesn’t have to be 10 million anymore with these easier-use robots, because you can quickly set up new jobs and such. But you definitely would not want to invest in a robot to run like 10 parts. You know, if you ran lots of 10 parts at a time and it was a really long cycle, you got to think about how long you have someone standing at a machine. That’s what the ROI is going to come from and those repetitive tasks. So, if you have a 1 or 2-minute to 10 to 20-minute cycle time, where a person has to attend a machine and there’s a reasonable volume of parts there – that’s a good place to start from a volume standpoint. Obviously higher is better, but I think the customers we see with the most success are the ones who have this. Maybe it’s one recurring job that they run for six months and then they might switch to something else, or they run lots of a thousand, lots of two thousand, every company has they’re sort of bread-and-butter job. It’s back to that 80/20 rule, what’s the 20 percent of the jobs that make up 80% of the production? If you find those 20 percent of the jobs, there’s things in the thousand to fifty+ thousand range, anything in that range is something that I would circle on the paper as ‘let’s take a second look at this.’

In terms of deploying it, you know, you want to understand your process, understand what types of machines you need to be automating. You need to understand how parts get put in the machines whether it’s a CMM, a CNC, a press, and understand how to make a robot find those. So those are the two things: Is there the volume? And then, how do we pick the part up? Because a person has an amazing ability to just find something, grab it, and have a sense of touch and feel how it works. You know, with robots now, we do have sense of touch with a force sensor. We can use a camera to find the parts. But at the end of the day, you still need to understand how to, and this is where that mechanical guy comes in. How do I make these parts presented nicely for the robot? Where, if I’m loading a CNC machine, do I put them in a grid or a pallet? If I’m using your product, they’re already basically presented in an easy to pick up way. So those are the things you want to consider, is the volume and, you know, how are we going to get this in the hands of the robot?

Allan: Yeah.

Nathan: But once you have that, you know, you can get started for… the average universal robot deployment might cost you, you know, 45 to 60 thousand dollars. So it’s a pretty easy ROI when you do the math on that.

Allan: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean at that point too you can set up multiple jobs, on a CMM specifically, with Inspection Arsenal®, set up with predesign fixtures. You run your robot, everything on there, you get your program run and you could pretty much set that up and run that job, run jobs all weekend long. And at that point it pays itself off quick and that’s, that’s a salary.

Nathan: Yeah, I think typically, for most customers it works out to be about a one-year ROI with a universal robot and like you said. Like, I guess what I mentioned, how does the robot find the part? Well from this Inspection Arsenal® standpoint, if everything looks the same to the robot because it’s a fixed size puzzle piece in a fixed sized palette, you could have mixed part flow and only one robot program that just picks up the part and loads it into the machine. And so, it could be as simple as having one program that the robot runs, maybe it needs to communicate back and forth with the CMM in some way, but you can have a mixed piece flow and run over the weekend overnight. Even if you’re only gaining… I have people who run just the six, maybe six hours after work. They only have a single shift, but they’re like, “Oh we could pick up a second shift or something to run this part.” But if you could potentially have a machine that runs multiple jobs during the day, it’s running a mixed piece flow and then at night you set up your universal robot and let it run, setup your Inspection Arsenal® let that go, you can run a ghost second shift which doesn’t cost you anything but the amortization of the robot and then the electricity. You don’t even have to have the lights on, so…

Allan: Exactly.

Nathan: You know, you can gain some extra production there, even if it’s not like running an entire light out shift. So, there’s some compromises you can make because these robots are less expensive than they used to be and they’re easier to use and they used to be.

Allan: Definitely. I went to school for automotive engineering like 15 years ago. I’m not a machine programmer by any means, and picking it up and doing it was very easy for me.

Nathan: Well, it’s funny because I sold three robots to a trade school last year, a high school.

Allan: Nice.

Nathan: I went to like public high school in Mass, but we didn’t have robotics groups or anything. But, you know, these guys at this trade school, they’ve got all their welding equipment, they got robotic stuff and now they have universal robots they can learn how to program on. And, you know, the thing that we’re saying is you’re going to be seeing this more and more, so it A.) provides them an easy way to pick up and start learning how robots work and B.) it’s going to be something they see, guaranteed, in their day-to-day life after they go on to different shops.

Allan: Yeah.

Nathan: So it’s an approachable way to learn the fundamentals of how robotics work because it’s easy. But at the same time it has all the capabilities of any normal robot so it can take you from, you know, the ground level all the way up to the top of the skyscraper in terms of complexity.

Allan: Yeah, for sure.

Nathan: I think we’re going to see some serious change in the next couple of years. But it’s all over the place. We’re going to keep just seeing more and more of that.

Allan: Definitely, yeah. And that’s I think, where robotics and automation and things like that are with the ease-of-use programming is where we were, say, 20 years ago with computers, you know?

Nathan: Yeah, I definitely think so.

Allan: I speak to high school students as well, quite a bit, and try to get them, to join the workforce. Just explain to them how cool it is. Like, who do you think made the parts for the last Falcon 9?

Nathan: Yeah.

Allan: It’s guys just like you, running machines just like that. But you’re right, that’s what we specialize in, in the United States.

Thanks again everybody for reading today. If you would like more information about today’s topic, you can feel free to contact me anytime via email, phone call, text message, whatever you want. You can also feel free to give Nathan a shout anytime; his contact information will be in the description. And if you like what you read today, I encourage you to head over and follow us on LinkedIn, subscribe to our YouTube channel, and check us out at www.phillips-precision.com for access to guest info, company info, all of our product lines, as well as videos and demonstrations. And if you’re looking for a better way to get parts through inspection faster, give us a shout. We have engineers and designers in-house to answer questions and help develop the effective concepts that you need to deliver perfect parts faster. We very much enjoy having you with us, so be sure to come back for future posts as we continue our discussion with industry experts about Delivering Perfect Parts Faster! Thanks for checking us out again, and we hope that you enjoyed today’s blog.

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