By Dave Gardner
Programmable robots and the humans who are trained to use them are “joining hands” to enhance the world of industrial automation.
Mike Duffy, founder and CEO of Keystone Automation, emphasized that the implementation of robotics is now the key to modern automation. This process does not eliminate labor, but evolves the types of personnel needed from unskilled to highly skilled in the operation and maintenance of the equipment.
Duffy is certain that manufacturing of all types must now invest in automation if they are to avoid being overtaken by competitors, with a few exceptions that are steadily shrinking.
“I recently was at a chair factory where the human touch was needed to stretch and apply the fabric,” said Duffy. “This application currently has no chance for automation to be used, but in the future this could change as technology improves.”
The opposite of this exception, according to Duffy, involves his work on an application that resembles a giant warehousing amphitheater. The facility will be used for retail distribution of the new iPhone 8, which technology experts forecast will kindle “insane” levels of sales.
The facility is actually an automated fulfillment center with management system using 23 conveyors to fill the iPhone orders through 128 potential merchandise pick points. A robot will select the proper phone and verify it with a bar code reader that is capable of 100 percent accuracy.
“The system is capable of picking a phone for shipment every five seconds,” said Duffy. “The order is labeled, packed, and made ready for multiple shippers all by automation.”
Duffy emphasized that, as the labor portion of commerce is reduced, maintenance of the equipment becomes vital. Trade schools offering two-year technical degrees are vital segments of the system to produce this skilled labor which will keep the industrial robots, conveyors, and integrated sensors all operating.
“I’m sorry to say we still do not have enough graduates in industrial automation to meet demand, which is steadily rising,” said Duffy.
He forecasted that, within 20 to 30 years, both market conditions and advancements in automation will create opportunities for large amounts of manufacturing to be on-shored. Transportation costs for finished goods will also play a big role in the selection of manufacturing locations, with prices for fuel oil a key factor if goods have to be shipped around the world.
“Additional opportunities will be created on-shore because the number of trained workers overseas who can maintain automation may be lagging,” said Duffy. “Therefore, domestic manufacturing may register gains if we can pump out enough trained technicians to meet demand.”
Added opportunities through additive
A cutting-edge technology making its technological mark, known as additive manufacturing or simply 3-D printing, uses layer upon layer of material that is slowly arranged by a printer under the precise control of a computer. Cole Hastings Goldstein, adjunct instructor of additive manufacturing at Johnson College, explained that his school is among those who have ramped up their instruction in this technology to stay ahead of the expanding use of 3-D printing in industry.
According to Goldstein, additive manufacturing is now being used for consumer goods parts production, such as soles for shoes or even a complete footwear unit. General Motors (GM) and Ford are now producing additive manufactured engine parts to test prototype designs, and GM is also creating ceramic parts for jet turbines.
Most of the additive parts are being created from different plastics, plus metals, glass and nylon. The materials may include superior UV resistance, making them suitable for outdoor use.
“China is now printing small 3-D houses,” said Goldstein. “Experiments are also underway with 3-D printing of living materials using tissues that carry a patient’s own DNA codes, thereby avoiding the possibility of rejection. Eventually we are going to see 3-D printed organs.”
Another associated technology at work in the commercial arena involves the use of sensors to gather data that is integrated with industrial systems to measure information. Joe Ranalli, assistant professor of engineering at Penn State Hazleton, explained that these sensor systems create superior ways to use data in process operations.
According to Ranalli, an example of sensor use already widespread with consumer products involves automobile sensors that measure the operating conditions of an engine and then pass this data to a central computer which alters the operating points of the engine for maximum efficiency. Timing and fuel mixtures are varied without the car’s operator being aware the changes are taking place.
An industrial application may involve the use of sensors on solar panels that would provide data about when is best time to clean a panel. This can allow development of a maintenance schedule that reduces costs while maximizing solar panel efficiency.
Ranalli also reported that advancements in solar cell technology have reduced prices for the electricity they generate to approximately the same level as conventional energy. The national energy grid will undoubtedly continue to utilize conventional energy generation from fossil fuels to maintain base load generation, but multi-junction solar cells that feature sweet molecular spots for maximum electric production in layers will increasingly be used for generation at peak times.
“Large-scale storage of energy is increasingly a reality,” said Ranalli. “One type of system pumps water up into a reservoir during the day using solar power, and then releases the water at night for electric generation.”
Programmable control advancements
Richard Fornes, director of innovation with Johnson College, pointed to the newest series of programmable logic controllers, called the 5000 series, as a versatile development in industrial automation. These controllers function more like a memory-laden PC than their predecessors, and are being used in systems dealing with food to manufacturing to waste water management.
The robotic systems these controllers are part of are more reliable than the human laborers they replace. They are still slower than computers, but are continually improving in speed as the chain of controllers and sensors are improved.
The robotics directed by the sensors and controllers are also becoming smaller, with system reliability improved by better static shielding and efficient cooling systems. The sensor networks providing information to the controllers are now a mix of types and can detect size, shape, color, and surface textures.
“We are also seeing safety improvements in the ways robotics can work next to humans with vastly reduced danger,” said Fornes. “As sensor abilities improve, applications become enhanced.”
Fornes agrees with Duffy that, to increase enrollments at the nation’s tech schools to fill workforce demands, parents must understand manufacturing does not take place in the dirty facilities of past days. Machine operators are actually programmers who are often physically separated from the manufacturing floor, and away from unpleasant environments.
Because school districts usually measure success by four-year college placement rate, plus a variety of societal factors, Fornes expects no big increases to be logged in the enrollment of two-year tech schools. He charges the United States as a whole is dragging its feet with acceptance of technology within industry, and said there are no quick solutions for the plight of Americans who are anti-education.
“I have no idea what we are going to do with the uneducated as far as their place in the technological workforce,” said Fornes.
Andrew Zwanich, senior director of student affairs at Johnson College, commented that industrial employers no longer want one-dimensional employees, such as a person solely trained in machinist or electrical technologies. Employers now desire to hire people with a blend of related skills, and to satisfy this need Johnson launched a new curriculum called advanced manufacturing.
Zwanich also is preaching that a commitment to lifelong learning is vital for anyone in the technological arena. He declared that passion plus knowledge creates an environment for career success, and he agrees with his industrial peers that people without a thirst for education are increasingly headed into dark employment waters.
A Johnson operational tactic prized by Zwanich details how the school uses industrial advisory committees staffed by people in the workforce to establish the facets of the school’s various technological majors, textbooks, tools, and equipment. In addition, students are required to be educated in English, and special attention is directed at math-oriented instruction such as statistics.
“Our students must make multiple speeches in the classroom, which is not an easy task for many kids with a technology focus,” said Zwanich. “This all part of turning out graduates that meet the comprehensive needs of technology-based employers.”
The Northeastern PA Industrial Resource Center (NEPIRC) is breaking new ground in the skill training arena by virtue of its recent eight-day technology camp for incoming high school juniors and seniors. Topics presented at the camp included lean manufacturing 101 with a LEGO airplane simulation, value stream mapping with a drone-build simulation, plus plant tours of today’s modern manufacturers and regional advanced manufacturing training facilities.
Lucyann Vierling, executive director of the Wayne Pike Workforce Alliance, takes the human side of technology and skill training for industry a step further. She charges that today’s lack of trained technicians for industry actually has a societal root cause, even though the nation’s K-12 schools do routinely offer tools such as career readiness planning, career fairs, job shadowing and industrial field trips.
According to Vierling, career awareness must start at the elementary school level and include practical applications of technology. Society must also be a champion of technological learning.
“Parents sometime interfere actively with a student’s choice of a technology-based career and a two-year school,” charged Vierling. “We see this all over as tech careers are discouraged in favor of four-year degree programs. We are therefore trying to address both kids and parents with career planning, as we change our overall culture about the value of a tech education.”
Vierling actually cringes when she hears commentary that no available jobs exist throughout NEPA. She responds that unskilled jobs with high pay levels are actually what has become scarce, and that even agricultural science has become very tech-driven and requires technical education for success.
Moving American society to the truth that good jobs require tech training, according to Vierling, is a very lofty goal. The mass retirements of boomers with industrial maintenance jobs is now creating mass job openings, provided a job candidate is properly trained.
“The labor market data tells the story,” said Vierling. “Since the 1950s, for every master’s degree level job, two bachelor’s degree jobs and seven associate and trade school positions become available. We need to fill these jobs with appropriately trained personnel, but to do this society needs to change its outlook.”