Robots Keep Valley Manufacturers Competitive Even as Jobs Threatened

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Toward the rear of QFM Stamping Inc.’s plant in Salem, a brightly painted yellow robotic arm zips back and forth, stopping at programmed intervals to weld portions of a component used in the rail car industry. The bed that holds the part lifts and turns as the automated arm adjusts and prepares for its next targeted weld.

“We can program it to weld just about anything we need to, as long as we have the fixtures for it,” says production manager Mike Vacha. “This is welding all the internal parts on housings for a rail car system.”

QFM bought the new robot about a year and a half ago – an investment that Vacha says helps with production efficiencies and costs: “With this robot, every weld is consistent and produces a higher quality part.”

It used to be that three welders were needed on this particular job, Vacha says. However, automation enabled QFM to reduce manpower to just one operator. The two other employees were reassigned other duties in the shop. “They’re assets to this company, and they’re simply doing other jobs,” he says.

The theory and practice of automation is nothing new. The ancient Greeks designed and experimented with simple steam and water-powered devices. By the 20th century, the term “robot” entered the world’s vocabulary as a result of Karl Capek’s 1920 play, “R.U.R.,” or “Rossum’s Universal Robots.” In that play, robots revolt against their masters and kill all human life on earth.

Robots have had a bad rap in popular culture since.

The use of robots in manufacturing, however, is more recent. In 1954, George Devol designed the world’s first industrial robot and two years later went on to establish his company, Unimation, to manufacture the first robotics systems. The company’s machines performed tasks such as using a robot arm that could lift and transfer material over a distance of 12 feet.

In 1962, General Motors Corp. became the first major manufacturer to install such a system in a plant in New Jersey. Since then, robots have evolved in sophistication and gradually assumed more complex duties.

The integration of robotics into everyday industrial use is no longer limited to the giant global manufacturers. Smaller companies such as QFM, for example, are making use of this technology and finding that it benefits their bottom line.

“We’ve had robots in place for the last seven years,” says Rick Fryda, president of Compco Industries Inc., Columbiana. Compco is the parent of QFM, which it acquired two years ago.

Compco manufactures tank heads used in the pressure vessel industry and Fryda says the company’s robots – six in all – are used to transfer products from one processing line to another: “Last year, we added four robots to the line to increase our throughput.”

Compco has achieved a successful balance between the use of robots and its workforce, Fryda says. “Not one person has lost their job here because of automation,” he emphasizes.

Indeed, while efficiency and productivity has improved with robot systems – Compco’s scrap percentage has dropped from 7% to less than 3% – its quality and on-time delivery targets have also improved.

But Fryda credits Compco’s on-time delivery and quality improvements to those employees who can now focus on this aspect of the business instead of performing the work that the robots do. “Our on-time deliveries are just north of 95%. That’s huge,” he says. “That’s why we didn’t eliminate jobs.”

Nevertheless, advanced technology in robotics has stirred a sense of uneasiness in the workforce.

“This is really the start of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” says John Russo, visiting scholar at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and Working Poor at Georgetown University and former co-director of the Center for Working Class Studies at Youngstown State University. “This revolution uses technology that blurs the line with the biological world.”

Russo posits that automation is giving rise to job insecurity (he uses the word “precarity”) – not just to blue-collar workers, but to office employees and professionals as well.

“In some cases, technology is making office work obsolete,” he says.

A study conducted in 2013 by Oxford University scholars found that computerization or automation poses varying degrees of obsolescence in 702 occupations – from lab technicians to insurance underwriters.

“People didn’t care too much when it was just blue-collar workers,” Russo says, “but now it’s white-collar jobs, too.”

At General Motors Co.’s Lords-town West plant, jobs that workers once performed have been gradually replaced by robots, says Robert Morales, president of Local 1714 of the United Auto Workers. “Speaking for myself, I’d say automation has cut our workforce in half over the last 20 years.”

At present, Morales says Local 1714’s membership stands around 900 – the ranks recently thinned because of layoffs tied to sluggish sales of the Chevrolet Cruze, the small car manufactured at the Lordstown Complex. When he started 22 years ago, about 3,000 worked there.

The Lordstown West plant, which includes the body shop, is home to 1,200 robots that perform welding, pick and transfer operations, Morales says. “These were jobs that bodies were once doing,” he says.

“But, this is the business we’re in – companies are looking for ways to be more efficient and competitive,” he continues. “It means fewer manufacturing jobs, but probably more IT and software engineering jobs.”

This sheds some light on what the workforce of this Fourth Industrial Revolution might soon look like – a more technology-oriented employee with advanced skills and training in computers and automation.

Youngstown State University, for example, is in the process of building a lab to house “flexible” automation equipment, especially in the field of co-robotics. Some 50 students will use the lab each semester.

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-13 Ohio, announced April 19 that his office helped secure a $187,000 project grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission – one of the agencies the proposed Trump administration budget would eliminate should Congress concur.

“The support of the ARC will help allow dozens of students each semester to become fluent in advanced technologies that will be the engine of future economic growth,” Ryan said in a statement.

Organizations such as the Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition similarly are working with high schools and colleges as the nature of manufacturing changes, says Jessica Borza, executive director of the MVMC. “We want to make sure that schools understand the impact of advanced manufacturing and job skills,” she says, while reminding manufacturers that they need to explore these advances if they are to remain competitive in a global market.

Borza says she sees “varying degrees” of adoption when it comes to employers in the region embracing robotics. “Our focus in 2017 is to be forward-looking as these companies present themselves in the marketplace,” she says.

As an example, the coalition plans to examine the impact of advanced technology on industrial maintenance and how integrated “smart” systems could alert operators of a likely equipment breakdown.

According to a recent report from the International Federation of Robotics, the number of industrial robots deployed worldwide is projected to reach 2.6 million by 2019, or roughly one million more robots than in 2015. About 70% of the world’s robots are used in the automotive, electrical/electronics, and metal and machinery industries, the report found.

And, the number of domestic robots worldwide – that is, robots that perform household tasks such as vacuuming floors, cleaning swimming pools or mowing lawns – will rise to 31 million by 2019, the federation projects.

The United States is the fourth-largest market in the world for industrial robots, behind the European Union, China and the Japan/South Korea markets, the report says. In 2015, the North American market – this country, Canada and Mexico – reported the number of newly installed industrial robots rose by 17% to 36,000 units. The United States accounted for about three-quarters of those installations.

Michael Prokop, innovation leader and chief electrical engineer at Taylor-Winfield Technologies Inc., Youngstown, says about half of his company’s business is related to building automated machines and robotic integrated systems.

In mid-April, the company was engaged in preparing a large robot welder to be shipped to a customer that automatically welds metallic cylinders. “The nuance of this machine is that it includes one of our patented welding technologies,” Prokop says.

Thirty years ago, it would have taken a team of welders to accomplish what this one robot can do, he says. “We just shipped a system out of here that integrated seven robots into the overall manufacturing process,” he says. “That took about four months to build.”

Ken Campbell stands in front of an integrated robotics system that Taylor-Winfield Inc. builds for manufacturers.

Taylor-Winfield builds manufacturing equipment used in the automotive, appliance, agricultural, energy and steel industries. While automation and robots don’t make up the company’s entire portfolio, they represent a rising segment of the business, Prokop says.

“It’s huge and it’s only getting bigger,” he says. While demand for robots and automation is on the rise, so too is the demand for modifying traditional equipment and converting it into “smart” machines.

“We’re currently rolling out an add-on feature for a typical standard automated machine that will provide intelligent diagnostics, preventive maintenance, condition monitoring and other key performance indicators,” Prokop reports.

Cloud-based technology is another option for customers, he says. “If a customer so chooses, they can have their enterprise system connected through the cloud,“ he says, which enables them to draw data on the operations of a machine or integrated system from a device such as a smart phone or tablet.

Most of the processes Taylor-Winfield uses to build the machines of tomorrow are traditional methods of manufacturing, says Blake Rhein, vice president, sales and marketing group. “Arc welding, resistance welding, induction-heating processes have been around since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution,” he says.

What has changed, Rhein emphasizes, is that customers are looking to automate around these traditional processes. “Today, customers want integrated solutions whereby machines or complete systems have data gathering and processing ability for predictive maintenance and greater machine uptime,” he says. “This leads to increased part throughput and reliability. Customers want automation to help advance themselves and manage their processes to be more competitive in their markets.”

Taylor-Winfield’s transition to dedicating more attention to automation and robot technology integration started nearly seven years ago when the company made the transition to new ownership with a new vision for the future, Rhein says. “At that time, the company was reborn with a new name and mission to bring advanced automated solutions to customers throughout the world,” he says.

Meantime, global manufacturers such as GM continue to advance on the path it first cleared in 1962. Its use of industrial robots today is vital for survival in an intensely competitive global market.

“A lot of the physically taxing work is now being done by robots,” says Glenn Johnson, president of UAW Local 1112, which represents 2,000 hourly workers at the Lordstown East plant, better known as the assembly plant.

Here, robots install front and rear glass panels and seats in the Cruze while the paint shop is entirely automated. Between these operations, Johnson estimates there’s between 200 and 300 robots working on the assembly side.

In the end, Johnson acknowledges that automation and the use of technically advanced manufacturing processes have helped giant automakers such as GM remain competitive. And, while automation reduces the number of jobs, advanced systems have also contributed to the survival of the Lordstown plant. Without these investments and upgrades, the plant would have closed years ago.

“The downside is the most obvious in that automation eliminates jobs,” Johnson says. “On the other hand, it’s also prolonged careers.”

Pictured at top: Mike Vacha, production manager at QFM Stamping, Salem, says the company’s robotic welder is both precise and efficient.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.