In an increasingly high-tech world, manufacturers are staying relevant by finding new ways to produce goods. Robotics and artificial intelligence is part of the mix, but experts say workers don’t have to be concerned over being displaced by armies of robots — at least not just yet.
Adopting new technology
Triangle Manufacturing Co., a 230-employee business in Upper Saddle River, is implementing new technology, such as an Advanced ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system that will deliver real-time information about inventory, human resource activity, production and capacity, according to President Dax Strohmeyer.
The family-owned company — which develops medical instrumentation, implantable and other devices for global clients, in addition to providing engineering, design and other services — aims to be paper-free by 2020. AI and robotics may eventually be part of the mix, but that’s a distance ahead, noted Strohmeyer.
“The new ERP program from Infor, which is scheduled to be implemented in February, will initially give us visibility at a granular level about our operations and how to improve them,” he said. “As a contract manufacturer we support many different customers, and this will help to centrally manage our disparate operations. At a later date, in ‘Phase Two,’ we’ll probably connect our ERP to some key suppliers, but we’re not ready to do that just yet.”
Triangle Manufacturing’s production runs are primarily short- to-medium-range, from as few as 10 units a year up to about 20,000, so the company doesn’t have the need just yet for a fully robotic system. “We do, however, leverage automation with initiatives like automated pallet systems that let us run multiple jobs without breaking down machinery and then setting it up again,” said Strohmeyer.
High-volume manufacturers like automobile companies and quick-service restaurant chains like Burger King and McDonald’s, “which are basically on-demand food manufacturers,” are good candidates for robotics, according to Carl Mazzanti, president and board chairman of eMazzanti Technologies, a Hoboken-headquartered firm that provides cloud, networking and other IT services.
Too soon for robotics?
“Robotics and AI get a lot of attention, but many New Jersey manufacturers have 200 or fewer employees and don’t have the production base to support that,” Mazzanti said. “Still, smaller manufacturers can use automated sorters or increase their use of automated testing.”
– Mark Howe, sales manager, The Knotts Co.
Exothermic Molding Inc. CEO and owner Paul Steck said his Kenilworth company uses “3-D printing (where computer controlled machines print three-dimensional objects) for small items like shop fixtures, and we’re looking at eventually using it to produce metal molds.”
That kind of move would likely “reduce the need for old-school skills, but would also mean more openings for people that learn to use the new hardware and software,” he added.
Right now, though, small manufacturers should be paying more attention to securing their lines and systems against hackers, according to Mazzanti. He pointed to one Garden State manufacturer that was taken down for four days — a lifetime in the industry — by a DoS, or denial-of-service attack, that kept knocking down its systems.
“A different manufacturer saw two competitors get hacked and fortunately called us in before they got hit,” he said. “One of the hacked competitors was hit by a ransomware attack and is no longer in business. Once you pay ransomware, the hacker may keep coming back and your customer s may desert you over security concerns.”
But business is growing for robotics and other type companies. The Knotts Co., based in Berkeley Heights, is an automation solutions provider that represents the makers of industrial, automation and robotics products. Sales Manager Mark Howe said that factory automation — including improving processes and production with pneumatic and electromechanical devices and collaborative and other robotics — can provide manufacturers with some good options.
“One of the major issues we see customers facing is the skills gap,” he noted. “Unemployment is low and demand is high, creating a stress on businesses. Looking into different levels of automation helps them successfully confront these challenges.”
The Knotts Co. worked with a New Jersey manufacturer that makes material-handling equipment to “stage and successfully deploy their first collaborative robot automation project,” Howe said. “The collaborative robot works closely with the people on the floor and automates the screw-driving step of the assembly. This helped increase production and allows the worker to focus on other high-value tasks.”
Increasingly, smaller manufacturers will likely be looking for workers who have some degree of tech smarts, according to Triangle’s Strohmeyer. “Our employees may not need a full-fledged IT background, but they should be computer savvy to some degree,” he said. “This hasn’t been much of an issue for us, since so many people have grown up with computers.”
But finding skilled computer numerical control (CNC) operators and machinists who can “read blueprints, and understand geometric dimensioning and tolerancing” is a challenge.
“We do a lot of training, but it’s still a lot of work,” Strohmeyer said. “But as we leverage robotics and AI, having trained people in place will help us to span the gap.”