May 17, 2014

Wichita firms just starting to dip their toe into robotics

It’s a long way from the robot apocalypse, but robots are getting smarter.

It’s a long way from the robot apocalypse, but robots are getting smarter.

Robots, at least manufacturing robots, which are the vast majority, don’t look like metal people rolling around. They tend to look like large mechanical arms bolted to the floor of a factory with welding torches instead of fingers.

And, while robots have been around more than 30 years, advances in technology are expanding their capabilities beyond a single narrow task.

They still do repetitive work, but their programming and sensing has grown more sophisticated, making them more flexible so they can handle more products and tasks with less human intervention. They’ve also gotten less expensive, broadening their appeal.

With new software, a factory full of robots can be monitored by a technician sitting in an office or even at home with an iPad rather than by machine operators on the plant floor.

Manufacturers are responding by buying more of them.

Last year, U.S. companies bought about 22,500 robots, an increase of 11 percent over the year before, and have about 10 times that number in operation. Worldwide, companies were projected to buy more than 160,000 robots in 2013.

Robots overwhelmingly are used in high-volume, assembly-line industries, such as automobile manufacturing, but they’ve started to spread to other industries, including many in Wichita. Manufacturers and others like their flexibility and ability to eliminate dangerous or ergonomically wearing jobs.

Working at Agco

One local company with a long history with robots is Agco, the farm machinery maker in Hesston. The company has had robots since the late 1980s, but the newer generation of robots does a lot more than weld the same seams over and over.

Their most sophisticated cell can now read the electronic tags on the parts in order to select the right program, place them exactly and weld them precisely. Over and over and over. That replaces the welder and reduces the time a worker has to spend tending the robot. A cell defines a place where the robots and/or workers do a specific activity, such as weld a particular part.

In another cell, a robot builds the chopper for a large square baler, an impressively large steel tube with heavy plates spiraling around it. The robot picks up plate after plate from a stack, places them precisely on the tube, tacks them in place with a few quick welds, then welds them on. It takes about three and a half hours.

It used to take five hours to weld one by hand, plus time to inspect and fix any mistake. The guy who used to weld them now works alongside the robot, supplying it, making adjustments, making the inspections.

Elsewhere at the Agco plant, Matt Hiedeman was setting up a new part on a robot cell last week. He was teaching the machine how to move by literally running it through the motions.

Hiedeman started out as a production welder and now sets up the machines that do that work.

It’s been a good trade-off, he said.

“I like the challenge,” he said. “It’s a lot more involved.”

Snapshot of robots

A robot is a machine programmed to move and do work in two or more directions more or less autonomously.

The overwhelming majority are used in manufacturing plants, but there are also wide variety of service robots that search the sea floor, hunt for unexploded mines and vacuum rugs.

Japan is the world’s largest buyer of robots, followed by the United States, with China close behind and growing the fastest, according to the International Federation of Robotics. Seventy percent of robots are sold in Japan, South Korea, China, the U.S. and Germany.

South Korea has the highest percentage, with 400 robots per 10,000 manufacturing employees. The U.S. is closer to 145 per 10,000 manufacturing employees.

The reason those countries stand out is the heavy robot presence in automobile manufacturing, followed by electronics, chemicals and food processing.

What robots offer in manufacturing is safety, precision, speed – and, potentially, lower costs.

When companies buy a robot, they may want to hire an integrator, who studies the desired task, selects the robot, installs it and integrates it with other plant operations.

Sean Reed, president of Advatec, a Wichita robot integrator, said robots, installed and ready to go, start at $110,000 but typically average $200,000.

He said that company executives typically expect a two- or three-year payback on their investment.

Just getting started

Reed said that Wichita isn’t as heavy on robots as some manufacturing centers, because the aircraft industry is only just dipping its toes into robotics.

The industry is low volume, with a large number of parts per plane, complex components, a variety of models and aluminum and titanium rather than steel. All of which runs counter to the traditional strengths of robotics.

Reed estimated there are fewer than 100 robots in Wichita’s aircraft industry now, but there is a lot of interest, he said. There are jobs in aircraft plants that lend themselves to robotics: drilling holes through sheet metal, grinding and polishing, material handling, painting.

Mike Edwards, dean of manufacturing at Wichita Area Technical College, said area aircraft companies are the ones that encouraged the college to start its robotics training program. That program can feed into Wichita State University’s four-year degree in mechatronics in the College of Engineering.

It’s starting to make more sense for local students, Edwards said.

“If they were going to build Toyotas, where they’re making the same welds over and over as they come down the line, robots make a lot of sense,” said Edwards. “If you’re building a business jet and you’re only going to build three of them this year, it’s been hard to get the return on investment. But with the new computers and more flexibility, they’ve become more interested in them. Robots are starting to show up in aviation.”

Displacement worries

So, do workers have to worry about their jobs?

No, said Joe Rowley, manufacturing engineering manager-core processes at Agco.

Robots are expensive and are limited in what they can do, so the switching of work over to robotics is slow. And robots will never be able to do a lot of things at a cost that makes sense.

The company now has 28 robots working alone or with another robot in 21 cells.

He estimated that less than 10 percent of Agco’s production work is done by robots now, and it could never go over 20 or 25 percent.

“If all we did was build 100 combines a day, there’s all sorts of things we could do,” he said. “But we’ll do four combines, eight balers. The mix changes.”

He said that as the robots have increased productivity at the plant, the company has pulled work back to Hesston that was being outsourced.

“We’re still looking for welders,” Rowley said.

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