Manufacturing automation is in the news and in our profiles. Here are two or three takeaways.
Two weeks ago, I attended the California Network of Manufacturing Innovation's excellent conference, "Automation: The Next Generation of Lean," at UC Irvine. Among the messages from industry professionals speaking at the event: Automation is coming, get ready or get left behind; the implementation "gap" between large companies and the small to midsized majority of manufacturers is Grand Canyon-like -- but cobots and other entry-level robots provide a short-path to automation; and robots are less displacing workers than enabling companies to reallocate labor to more value-added roles.
It's a key point, one echoed by owner Dave Kush in the Axis Robotics profile in this week's Colorado newsletter. Contrary to the popular narrative, many robotics deployments are enabling companies to free up employees to focus on more value-add work. As one panelists said, "We don't see a lot of jobs being lost to automation. We see a repurposing of labor into areas that are value-added to the company."
For one, the trend is changing what a Quality Control room looks like. Today in job shops throughout manufacturing, people are inspecting hundreds and thousands of the same part, nobly searching for minor imperfections. In five years, QC will be a fully automated function for many of these same companies.
(As a cautionary tale, a slower embrace of robotics and automation challenges the notion that collectively, U.S. companies are leading a global tech surge in manufacturing. For a more sobering assessment of productivity gains in the US compared to other advanced manufacturing countries, read this eye-opening feature in Quartz.)
I wrote last week that Swiss Productions' Timo Lunceford is chasing opportunity by investing in equipment at the Ventura-based company -- in this case new machines to more precisely fabricate the parts and pieces of bioscience and medical device manufacturing. Lunceford is driving growth by being more precise in what he currently does, innovation that's enabling him to expand what he makes and assembles for key OEMs.
It's a trend we see more in California manufacturing: technology, processes, and OEM interest in reimaging a domestic supply-chain -- all leading to a heightened competitive capability in the sector, in contract manufacturing in particular.
I couldn't have written a better description for what's happening at Colorado Manufacturing Award-winning Manes Machine in Fort Collins. I stopped in to visit CEO Bruce Page last week.
Page is also investing -- on a larger scale. Manes is a best-in-class aerospace manufacturer whose calling card has been large, fabricated components in aircraft like Boeing's 787 Dreamliner.
Page is increasing Manes' competitiveness with robotics that connect multiple machining platforms, as state-of-the-art data management tools provide constant information to operators and managers. It's a technology and automation play that is truly transformative. Page's advanced machines are fabricating the same parts for Boeing's fleet of airplanes, but with increased efficiency and access to data that's improving company profitability and competitiveness.
But there's more: The technology is fundamentally changing Manes' workforce equation by attracting talent that a decade ago would have bypassed heavy contract manufacturing altogether. It's also lessening the burden of training and retaining a workforce that's become nearly impossible to replace. It's the new face of manufacturing. We'll profile Manes Machine later this summer.
As I also said last week, it's an incredible time to be involved with manufacturing.
Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Email him at email@example.com.