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Manufacturers look to automation to increase productivity

Automation, including robots, is helping New Jersey manufacturers to be more competitive and expand into other markets while allowing employees to perform critical-thinking activities.John Kennedy, president of New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program, said that in order to remain competitive, the U.S. will need to embrace robotics in the manufacturing industry as other countries are already doing. This coincides with New Jersey companies using automation to increase their productivity.

“Sharing expertise with government officials, educators and supporters will spark new ideas and propel further innovation and opportunity,” Kennedy said. “The manufacturing industry will grow by changing the landscape of automation.”

Kennedy sees both robots and humans as having a place in New Jersey manufacturing and being critical to the industry’s success.

“Robots can’t take initiative, develop creative ideas, lead teams and solve problems,” Kennedy said. “Humans can and will, with robots to assist their efforts.”

He considers hybrid jobs the future of manufacturing, especially those that implement robotics. Despite a common perception that robotics spell the demise of manufacturing jobs, Kennedy said the opposite is true.

“Robots don’t eliminate the need for skilled laborers — human involvement is needed to accomplish robotic tasks,” Kennedy said.

Newark-based ZaGO Manufacturing intends to buy at least one robotic arm to use in the making of its four sealing-product lines, said Gail Friedberg, company co-owner and vice president.

“We do intend to start using robots to do the tedious work that our employees do: pick and place on a machine,” Friedberg said. “The technology for that is pretty standard. Prices have dropped so it is attainable for a small company like ours to use that.”

ZaGO Manufacturing is also installing a new Enterprise Resource Planning system, which will input price quotes into its shipping system.

“We will know how much it costs us to do a job and be a better vendor for our customer,” Friedberg said. “The technology is within reach. Things that used to cost $1 million now cost $25,000. We did not look at robots years ago because we could not afford it. You do not need a computer system to access it because everything is stored in the cloud. Small businesses can afford it.”

“In our company we do not have any intentions to let anyone go,” she continued. “We will use robots to increase demand. Our intention is to help everyone build up their skills so they can work with the automated systems.”

Friedberg does not see any drawbacks to automation.

“I see that once you bring automation, it sparks more ideas,” Friedberg said. “It is better to see people improving their skills. I would be happy seeing people working at a higher level.”

Mark Howe is the sales manager at Berkeley Heights-based Knotts Co., an automation solution provider representing industry leading manufacturers of industrial, automation and robotics products. Knotts Co. sells products to New Jersey and global manufacturers.

“Manufacturers could have a problem that requires a robotic solution or any other automated solution to improve a process that is being done manually,” Howe said. “Customers look to automate – a machine does a process without humans.”

He said the process involves determining if the manufacturers have a labor challenge: Do they need to do something faster? Are they having inconsistent quality? Are they having hiring or labor issues?

“The one thing robots do is they put together parts the same way every time whereas humans vary,” Howe said. “Robots are working with the humans. We work with manufacturers.”

Knotts Co. sells two collaborative robot arms that are manufactured by Universal Robots in Denmark. These robots simulate human motions, among other functions.

“A common challenge we have seen is there are not enough people to hire for manufacturing roles,” Howe said. “As soon as we have a grasp of the problem, we work with Universal Robots to solve whatever the customer’s problem may be. It could take a week or a month. It depends on the complexity of the problem.”

“We would not be able to get their business to the level where they want it to be but they want to reach a certain point where they sell their products to more customers,” Howe said.

Universal Robot released a new robot arm in June at a trade show.

“We own a few Universal Robot arms for demonstration purposes,” Howe said. “The new version will give us another resource for manufacturers to see what this robot is capable of doing.”

“They are coming up with new technologies every year and it gives companies the chance to grow with automation on a case-by-case basis,” Howe said. “We have three robots for demonstrations. We bring them to the customers for demonstrations. We show its features and benefits, and want the customers to better understand the technology.”

But though robots increase productivity, they can’t duplicate the work of skilled employees.

“The robot takes over a low-value task and allows the person to do a high-value task,” Howe said. “The robots cannot think. They will create new jobs in programming specialists, process analysis and robotic engineers.”

“Robots will only do what you tell it to do,” he said. “It is only as good as its human counterpart. The key is to properly apply robots to benefit the manufacturer. They have a relatively quick payback.”

Knotts Co. is also using another collaborative robot called Mir in the class of autonomous mobile robot, which moves products from shipping to warehouse. Manufacturing companies look at that to increase production time and carry heavy loads.

David Hutter
David Hutter grew up in Darien, Conn., and covers higher education, transportation and manufacturing for NJBIZ. He can be reached at:

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