Robots take more work in busy factories


Orders for work robots in the United States rose by a record 40% in the first quarter compared to the same period in 2021, according to the Association for Advancing Automation, the industry trade group for the robotics. Robot orders, worth $1.6 billion, soared 22% in 2021, after years of flat or declining order volumes, the group said.

Rising wages and labor shortages, compounded by rising Covid-19-related absenteeism, are changing some manufacturers’ attitudes toward robotics, executives said. “Before, you could throw people at a problem instead of finding a more elegant solution,” said Joe Montano, CEO of Delphon Industries LLC, a manufacturer of packaging for semiconductors, medical devices and aerospace components.

Delphon, based in Hayward, Calif., lost 40% of its production days in January when the coronavirus spread to its workforce. The disruption prompted the company’s purchase of three additional robots earlier this year, Montano said.

Manufacturers in the United States, where workers are generally plentiful and wages stable, have been slower to adopt robotics than those in some other industrialized countries. According to the International Federation of Robotics, the number of robots deployed in the United States per 10,000 workers has traditionally lagged behind countries like South Korea, Japan and Germany.

The use of industrial robots in North America for years had been concentrated in the automotive industry, where robots took on repetitive tasks such as welding on assembly lines. While automakers and auto component makers accounted for 71% of robot orders in 2016, their share fell to 42% in 2021, the automation association said. Meanwhile, robots have made inroads into other industries, including food production, consumer products, and pharmaceuticals. Executives said the enhanced capabilities allow the robots to be programmed for more complex tasks that require a mix of strength and agility.

At Athena Manufacturing LP, a company that manufactures and machines metal equipment used in the semiconductor, energy and aerospace industries, chief financial officer John Newman said customers were increasing orders, but Athena struggled to find enough workers to staff a second week shift. and a weekend shift.

The Austin, Texas-based company has purchased seven robots in the past 18 months, including one that grinds welds on steel frames to hold semiconductor equipment. Mr Newman said Athena had spent more than $800,000 on robots, including about $225,000 on the grinding robot alone. The investments were aimed at increasing Athena’s ability to handle orders, he said, more than reducing costs.

Grinding welds on a rack typically took an employee about three hours, but the robot is now able to do it in 30 minutes, he said.

Mr. Newman said the robot can apply more force with a grinding tool than a human, reducing the time needed to create a smooth welded joint. “The robot doesn’t stop to rest, and that’s understandable for a human because it’s hard work,” he said.

Acquiring the grinding robot took Athena about four years of research and engineering, Newman said, including help from 3M Co., which supplies the abrasive materials used in the grinding tool used. by the robot. Athena has deployed six other robots, four of which weld the racks and two load the metal into the machines. Most of these off-the-shelf robots were delivered within weeks and can be programmed remotely from a phone app, he said.

“Robots are getting easier and easier to use,” said Michael Cicco, CEO of Fanuc America, a unit of Japan’s Fanuc Corp., a major supplier of industrial robots. “Companies used to think automation was too difficult or too expensive to implement.”

Daron Acemoglu, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said factories’ growing reliance on automation will lead to an oversupply of human labor that will depress wages in years to come, unless other American industries cannot absorb the displaced manufacturing workers.

“Automation, if it goes very fast, can destroy a lot of jobs,” Acemoglu said. “The labor shortage is not going to last. It’s temporary.”

At Delphon, Montano said the company started renting robots about four years ago to reduce upfront expenses. The company now has 10 robots, including four so-called cobots that work side by side with employees.

Delphon’s subsidiary TouchMark applies the print to the surfaces of medical devices, such as catheters. Cobots now spin and hold devices while a worker uses a printer that applies ink to the device. Montano said two cobots reduced a three-person print crew to one, saving the company $16,000 a month in expenses.

Two other Delphon cobots assemble packages for shipping semiconductors and other fragile goods, which are shipped in plastic boxes. Robots are now used to clean the 2-inch-by-2-inch boxes with air blasts, dispense a bead of glue inside, then install layers of mesh and the company’s silicone film padding.

Mr. Montano said Delphon is extending the robots to work on larger boxes. The robots have improved the company’s productivity, he said, driving shipments up about 15% in 2021 and 2020, respectively, without increasing the company’s headcount by 200 people.

“We haven’t reduced any staff, but we have reallocated them to where we needed staff,” he said.

This story was published from a news agency feed with no text edits

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