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Hometown Manufacturing: Robots Work for Companies of All Sizes

by Donald A. Vincent , Executive Vice President
Robotic Industries Association

Remember the days when robot sales were driven primarily by large volume orders and by companies in the automotive sector? Today, small and medium sized companies receive more attention than ever from robot suppliers. Now, ‘‘Hometown Manufacturing, Inc.’‘ with its small workforce and short runs is a coveted customer of robot sellers, and this is a very mutual win-win situation.

The evidence for wider acceptance and use of robots is all around us. For one thing, the last two years have seen double digit growth in sales and shipments of robots, with record years topping the $1 billion mark. To take it a step further: if you’ve ever had your foot measured at a shoe store, I can almost guarantee the device used was from the Brannock Device Company, a small company with a steady payroll, plus now some robots for grinding, a fast growing application area for robotics.

There have been many leaps in technology over the years, which has led to the use of robots in ever more applications. Robots excel in material handling applications, which opens doors to even more users. For instance, Forbes Chocolate in Cleveland, Ohio, a supplier of cocoa and flavorings for the food industry, now uses robots for palletizing heavy and awkward loads. Pharmacies around the country, even in prisons, use robots for dispensing prescriptions as a way to improve accuracy and save money through quality improvements.

‘‘Hometown Manufacturing,’‘ the fictional company depicted on the cover of RIA's 2006 Robotics Industry Directory , is like any small or medium company anywhere in the industrialized world. It has less than 1,000 workers, demanding customers, engineering changes, supply headaches, and a limited budget. It’s hard to find and retain skilled labor, especially when the economy seems to follow a different path every few months.

You may know what this is like. You may even have the extra burden of soaring health care. For some Hometown companies, warranty and service issues can seem like the attack of tiny beaks: peck, peck, pecking away at the bottom line. There is no time or money to risk on new or unproven technology, and yet business as usual is not an option.

Thank goodness robots are now at the point where using them is nearly the business equivalent of upgrading from a typewriter to a personal computer. Price has virtually been eliminated from the cost justification exercise. Today you get so much value in terms of software and technology, reliability and accuracy, that robots are affordable at any size.

After 40 years of use in some of the harshest environments where workers needed a machine that JUST WORKED, the industry has developed truly friendly man/machine interfaces so anyone with little or even no knowledge of computers can be trained to use a robot and increase productivity.

Take arc welding for instance. Most will agree this is a skilled trade with a high degree of difficulty and it’s hard to find qualified welders. At RIA, we are told ‘‘arc on time’‘ is about 30 percent with a person, but about 85-90 percent with a robot, plus robots use less floor space. That’s almost three times the productivity, and after the payback period (typically two years), it’s been shown that the operating cost for a robot is about thirty cents an hour, plus about $500 annual maintenance, and it does not compete with employees for health care or pension benefits.

Not only are robots reliable and affordable, they do more than ever before with amazing ease. Add machine vision, and robots have even greater capacity to improve productivity.

Whatever their size or application, we know many companies have chosen robots to contain costs and stay competitive at home, and are succeeding famously. We hear from our supplier and integrator members that cost has been driven from the equation in most cases, and now the decision to automate with robots is a function of quality and flexibility.

If your company is like Hometown Manufacturing, Inc., and you’re thinking about how to compete, call an RIA supplier or systems integrator first. You could go to a developing nation for cheap labor, but today’s robot can be just as affordable. You could outsource, but quality and shipping logistics are easier to control in your own back yard. You could do many things, but trends in robot sales indicate more companies are choosing robots, staying at home, and enjoying stronger businesses returns.

Just as Joe Engelberger, the ‘‘Father of Robotics,’‘ has said so many times – when looking at solving manufacturing problems, ask the question: ‘‘Do you think a robot could …?’‘ It was a good question 40 years ago, and even better today with all the new technology.

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