Looking at history to see the future of manufacturing jobs

Posted: February 4th, 2014 | By: Eagle Tech


It’s no secret that automation technologies like robots have eliminated the need for humans to perform dirty, dangerous, or repetitive tasks in factories. But as the dirty and dangerous jobs are being taken up by robots, there are questions about whether the continued inclusion of robotics and automation technologies will replace even the high skilled jobs in manufacturing.

Over at The Switch blog from the Washington Post, James Bessen takes a look at this from a historical point of view in his article, Will robots steal our jobs? The humble loom suggests not.:

Marx observed this automation and predicted that it would result in mass unemployment. But that’s not what happened. In fact, by the end of the century, there were four times as many factory weavers as in 1830. What Marx missed was that the new technology also increased demand. The greater output per weaver reduced the price of cloth. Consumers reacted by buying more cloth. Greater demand for cloth meant more jobs for weavers despite the automation.

While the idea that robots will replace workers conjures fear and headlines that grab people’s attention, it doesn’t tell the whole story about automation and what this means for labor.

In a traditional hand loom, a long set of threads is stretched lengthwise and alternate sets of threads are raised or lowered. The weaver propels a shuttle carrying another thread across the loom, through the opening created by the raised threads, and then lowers the raised threads so they lock the alternate thread into the cloth.

The power loom automated these basic steps, but weavers still needed to perform tasks such as filling the shuttle when it ran out of yarn, monitoring the cloth for defects and fixing breaks in threads. This partial automation meant that a single weaver could tend two looms, increasing the output per worker.

For example, it takes fewer bank tellers to operate a bank branch, thanks to the ATMs. This makes it less costly to operate a bank branch, allowing banks to open more of them. With more branches, banks can expand their markets. But more branches mean greater demand for tellers, offsetting the loss in the number of tellers per branch. Bank tellers today perform different tasks than in the past – they do fewer simple jobs like counting cash and more of the customer interaction of “relationship banking.” These tasks require different skills, but ATMs have not eliminated teller jobs.

There is no way to tell what the future holds for manufacturing jobs as we continue to add and update automation technology in factories. One thing we do know is that while certain positions may be replaced with technology, there will still be a need for a skilled workforce to continue working and new positions being developed as these changes take place. By looking at the past, we can see what is likely to come in the future.


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How to manage the risks of obsolete technologies

Posted: January 28th, 2014 | By: Eagle Tech


With all of the new automation and data collection technologies emerging today, its hard to know what will be a good, long-term investment and what will become obsolete and inevitably need to be replaced. Because budgets are a little bit tighter than they once were, there is more thought going into how to best spend the money your company has to invest in technology.

In many cases, the risks posed by continuing to use obsolete technologies outweigh the costs of replace equipment. However, this becomes much more difficult to do if there is no plan in place for how to manage the operation of these end-of-life aged technologies.

  • Supply chain fragility. A number of control systems that were designed and launched in the 1970’s and 1980’s are still in use today. Technology shifts, diminishing demand, and economic impacts have made some vital components and subassemblies used in these systems hard to come by. Some are in short supply and others are completely extinct.
  • Support challenges. Difficulties locating legacy products can be further compounded by maintenance challenges. Not only is maintenance expensive, but attrition among subject matter experts brings an added layer of complexity.
  • Regulatory restrictions. Safety regulations and rules regarding hazardous substances (e.g. the Restriction of Hazardous Substances directive) have expanded significantly in recent years, leaving many older products at risk for compliance.

Because budgets aren’t as ample as they used to be, there are a few simple ways to mitigate the issues that come along with aging and obsolescence:

Conducting consistent preventive maintenance

As equipment reaches the end of its useful life, age and wear take their toll. Failure rates drastically increase, as do maintenance costs. Plants are perpetually one major part break or machine failure away from a shut down, and legacy equipment is more susceptible to these sorts of hiccups. As a result, preventive maintenance becomes absolutely essential.

To drive consistent preventive maintenance of discontinued products, maintenance engineers need to be constantly asking questions, such as:

  • Are the filters replaced regularly?
  • Is the current operating environment within OEM specifications?
  • Are cooling fans operational and clear of obstruction?
  • Does the equipment possess the latest firmware update?
  • Is there an updated logbook documenting inspections of obsolete equipment?
  • When is the last time grounding was checked?

Training to support legacy equipment

Preventive maintenance activities will only be productive if performed by personnel with the know-how to handle the machines they are maintaining. It’s not uncommon for a production facility to be running equipment that’s more than 20 years old, and most of the people that designed and installed it have moved on from the department or organization.  Oftentimes, these experts have been replaced by younger engineers who simply can’t be expected to hold the same level of knowledge on legacy equipment.

Developing a training program to address these gaps is critical, but 58 percent of companies have faced difficulties in training young engineers and technicians to operate and maintain older control systems, according to a survey conducted by the ARC Advisory Group. Effectively training staff to maintain legacy products can be even more challenging because it requires a great breadth of knowledge. Employees need to know how to maintain all legacy products – this includes installation, configuration, programming, maintenance, diagnosis, troubleshooting and repair.

Planning for spare replacement and legacy repair support

A spare part-replacement strategy should involve more than just stockpiling parts, it involves a process of:

  • Calculating the optimal amount of spare parts
  • Determining the condition and supply of the spares
  • Identifying spares of legacy equipment
  • Identifying a trustworthy and timely supplier of legacy spares

Because of the complexity that can be involved in effectively managing spares for legacy equipment, companies sometimes choose to leverage a third-party to manage the process. Parts management programs can help reduce inventory and carrying costs, and can help provide more immediate spare parts availability.

Managing Obsolescence Status

Within a year or two of conducting a comprehensive audit of the installed base, production facilities often start to discover products that were once active have become discontinued. If risk isn’t being continually assessed, it’s much more likely status changes and threats associated with them will be missed.

To prevent this, companies need to establish a process for monitoring lifecycle stages of equipment. This should include developing a database and assigning subject matter experts within the organization to collect and maintain all lifecycle information. Vendors also can help provide additional information around lifecycle statuses, parts and service availability, and migration recommendations that align with business goals.

These steps are not all-inclusive, but they are a great place to start to make sure that you and your manufacturing process don’t get taken by surprise when a machine at the end of it’s useful life begins having problems.

To read more on mitigating obsolescence and creating and obsolescence plan, read the article at mbtmag.com.


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How energy can impact the automated factory

Posted: January 21st, 2014 | By: Eagle Tech


One of the areas that manufacturers may not take into account when looking at their manufacturing costs is energy usage. This can happen for many reasons, but most often this happens because it is hard to measure exactly how much energy is used for any given task since the cost of energy can differ depending on the time of day, day of the week, etc.

Nevertheless, most companies allocate energy costs on a product in retrospect, basing the allocation on some algorithm or percentage of measurements made during the installation of the machines. This is done with a very gross level of approximation, despite values ​​that affect the total cost of production by several tens of percentage points, and are therefore critical to the profitability of the company.

Today, the amount of energy needed to produce a certain good deserves to be treated as any other ingredient or component. Energy use should be included in the processes of planning, procurement and financial statements just as any other item needed for production.

Through automation, though, more exact information can be gathered about the energy it takes to perform different activities. This, tied with energy rate and demand information, can help manufacturers better gauge the most cost-effective times to operate or perform tasks. Energy use, and automation, are a simple way to cut overhead for a manufacturer.

Read more about how energy use can be used as part of a overhead cutting calculation.


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Smart manufacturing and its effect on the industry

Posted: January 14th, 2014 | By: Eagle Tech


Over the last few decades the manufacturing industry has been undergoing constant change in an effort to keep up with technology and economic conditions. Some recent changes on this front have been “Smart Manufacturing” and advanced sensor robots that can “see” and “feel”.

The technologies used for the implementation of “smart manufacturing” or “smart production” span a wide spectrum of domains. They are often referred to as Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, i.e., the combination of a sensing/actuating device with a communication network (wired or wireless) and a software application to move, read and interpret data.

The causality between IoT and the transformation of manufacturing was underlined in a recent roundtable between executives at Robert Bosch and McKinsey experts on the Internet of Things and the Future of Manufacturing. According to McKinsey Partner Dr. Markus Löffler, “the Internet of Things has already set in motion the idea of a fourth industrial revolution—a new wave of technological changes that will decentralize production control and trigger a paradigm shift in manufacturing.”

The increase in technology involved in automation and robotics is making them more flexible and versatile. Today, robotics technology allows humans to work alongside robots that can pick parts based on what they look like rather than whether it has been set up properly for the robot.

These two technologies — machine vision/3D laser scanning and tactile/force control — integrated with robot workcells demonstrate that there are many opportunities for operational improvement that can directly impact a manufacturer’s bottom line through improved efficiency, reduced waste, improved safety and lower maintenance.

The question that arises from talk of flexible and versatile robots is, what does this mean for jobs? The answer is in the difference between onshoring and offshoring. In the early 1990s, there was a rush of manufacturing business leaving the US for countries with lower wage rates while other manufacturers began adding automation technologies as a way to increase productivity and lower costs. As time moved on, and wages began to rise overseas, automating the manufacturing processes at home became a better solution.

While the changes in automation technology and “Smart Manufacturing” might seem like they are replacing labor in some ways, these technologies and techniques are helping to keep manufacturing, and jobs, in the US and also brings different jobs to the manufacturing industry than had traditionally existed before.


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The state of manufacturing as we start the new year

Posted: January 7th, 2014 | By: Eagle Tech


As reported on IndustryWeek.com, the manufacturing industry ended 2013 on a high note, registering 57% on the PMI index from the Institute for Supply Management. In addition to this, December marked the seventh consecutive month of growth on the PMI.

The reading was just 0.3% below November’s reading, slightly exceeding analysts’ consensus forecast for the month. Chad Moutray, chief economist for the National Association of Manufacturers, noted the “manufacturing PMI measures averaged 56.3 in the second half of 2013, a nice improvement from the 51.5 average seen in the first half of the year.”

The growth in manufacturing was paired with a slight gain in the employment index, moving from 56.5% in November to 56.9% in December.

ISM’s Bradley Holcomb said purchasing executives comments “reflect a solid final month of the year, capping off the second half of 2013, which was characterized by continuous growth and momentum in manufacturing.”

Of the 18 industry sectors, 13 reported growth in December, led by furniture and plastics & rubber products. Four manufacturing industries reported contraction in the last month of 2013: nonmetallic mineral products; machinery; chemicals; and electrical equipment and appliances.

With the strong growth that we’ve seen in the second half of 2013, it is expected that we will see more of the same in the new year.


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Addressing the human element in automation through alarm management

Posted: December 31st, 2013 | By: Eagle Tech


For decades, manufacturing processes have been the target of increasing efficiency and automation, saving time, money, and energy. However, there is one aspect of the manufacturing process that automation has not been able to address – the human element. One example of this is in manufacturing alarm response.

[E]xperts throughout the industry ecosystem are still scratching their heads about how to get through to the plants that just aren’t managing their alarms effectively. Folks at Honeywell Process Solutions (HPS) are so confounded they thought it might be a good idea to gather a few industry journalists recently for a video chat, to find out what we’ve heard in our travels; what people are telling us about why they’re not following through with alarm management tasks.

As Kevin Brown, global best practice lead for HPS, noted, there are some $10 billion in losses caused by alarm management issues every year, according to the ASM Consortium. Plants are hit with as many as 4,000 alarms a day. And in a three-phase approach to alarm management, operations “get success, have results, but long term, we’re not seeing it,” he said.

The problem comes in as the practice of alarm management. While there are plans that can, and are, put in place, they aren’t being followed.

Brown is concerned that manufacturers aren’t seeing the forest for the trees. “They’re looking for a silver bullet,” he said. They want to put alarm plans in place and then never have to think about them again. And he agrees with comments that they’re concerned about “the cost of people they have to get involved in rationalization.”

As a case in point, Brown mentioned one HPS customer that was experiencing some 350 alarms per operator each day. They got the total down to 10-11 alarms per hour, and then 4.5 alarms. “But they were back up to 28 alarms an hour in five months,” he said. It’s as if they completed their alarm management program, “and then they put it on the shelf.

One problem with alarm management is the cost, in both time and money. It is easy to skip a five to ten minute meeting to discuss an alarm and how to fix the problem. It gets an employee to their next task more quickly. The problem is that time and money are also lost when an alarm goes off and the alarm isn’t managed. This is an annoyance for Honeywell Process Solutions, which has been working on this very problem.

Although Honeywell could keep selling the same services over and over again to manufacturers that fail to follow up on alarm management the first time around, that’s certainly less than ideal. “I don’t want to be, 10 years down the road, having the same conversations,” Brown said. “But some of the biggest companies out there are still not taking that next step.”

Hopefully, if alarm management becomes more advanced and the benefits are more well-defined, the human element can begin to be brought in line with the overall goal of automation.

Read more about the human element in automation over at Automation World.


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Automation key to keeping the food industry on the cutting edge

Posted: December 24th, 2013 | By: Eagle Tech


As the increasing use of technology creates the expectations of variety and fast change among people, the food industry is looking to be on the cutting edge of this trend. Adept might just have the answer.

Apter said that automation technology enables parameters of a processing system to be adjusted with a quick change of menu options on the control panel. Such flexibility is essential in the face of ever-evolving consumer preferences, he told FPD.

“New tastes are arising for reasons as diverse as health consciousness and budgetary concerns,” Apter said. “New categories such as ethnic, organic, gluten-free, sugar-free, low-fat, high-fiber, low-sodium, and caffeine-free continue to proliferate product and part types, or SKUs.”

The desire of food firms and retailers to build brands through a broadening range of portion sizes and packaging formats (including fridge packs and club-store sizes) also are driving product diversification, Apter said. Consumers also are seeking smaller-quantity packs that meet low-budget concerns.

Adept’s Quattro robot is the only one that is FDA approved. Adept also works directly with food processing companies to better understand and meet their needs. The Quattro is Adept’s answer to the increasing expectations of consumers. With the Quattro, and the understanding of the consumers wants and needs, Adept believes that they can supply the machines that will keep the food processing industry on the cutting edge.

Read more about Adept’s Quattro at foodproductiondaily.com.


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Avoid making mistakes when making automation upgrades

Posted: December 17th, 2013 | By: Eagle Tech


There are a handful of common mistakes that companies make when they upgrade their automation technology. They can make the difference between increased efficiency, production, and savings and playing catch-up as machines need to be replaced. These include:

  • 1: FOCUSING ON THE PROBLEM, NOT STRATEGIC OBJECTIVES
    • The most common mistake made in automation projects is one we all make in our personal lives or in business decisions — we spend too much time dealing with the issues that are counter-productive to our goals and strategic objectives.

In this case, money is being spent to fix or replace obsolete hardware and software, which limits a company’s ability to grow. By spending money on hardware and software that not only solves immediate problems, but allows for growth, a company can develop over time rather than making equivalent replacements as problems arise.

  • 2: FAILING TO INCLUDE ALL ASPECTS OF BUSINESS IN PROJECT
    • Many organizations put initiatives in place to optimize manufacturing operations in order to gain efficiency or reduce costs.

Failing to include all aspects of business in a project happens all too often. A company might look to increase production or increase efficiency in production or save money, selecting systems that fit the immediate need, but don’t fit in with the business goals as a whole. Rather than replacing individual parts of the production process, the entire process should be taken into account in order to develop a strategy and integrate technologies that will function the best as a whole.

  • 3: FOCUS ON RETURN ON INVESTMENT (ROI) RATHER THAN NET PRESENT VALUE (NPV)
      • Historically, capital expenditures have always had one key metric for the invest-or-save decision — return on investment calculation.

    Typically, Return on Investment (ROI) is the key factor in whether or not an investment in technology should be made. This, however, is not always the best strategy. While ROI is generally determined by how quickly a new technology will pay for itself, this doesn’t take into account other savings that may come with implementing this new technology. By looking into the savings implementing a new technology can create as well as the increases in production, a company can better justify making a capital investment.

    • 4: CHOOSING THE WRONG PARTNER
        • Manufacturing organizations have made the choice to use a consulting engineering firm or system integrator to spearhead the effort for upgrading their automation system.

      It’s normal to use a consulting firm to help implement or upgrade automation systems. The problem that most companies make when hiring these firms is to make sure the firm fits their needs. Making changes to an automation system is an important decision. The firm you hire to help you with this decision should be chosen the same way you would hire a doctor – making sure they have the expertise and experience to help you, as well as making sure they will be focused on you.

      If you are aware of these mistakes, it’s much easier to avoid them when making the decision to invest in your automation systems.

      To read more about these mistakes and how to avoid them, visit Manufacturing Business Technology.


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      Better factory automation design through biomechatronics

      Posted: December 10th, 2013 | By: Eagle Tech


      Automation company Festo has been experimenting with biomechatronics as a way to better develop their automation technologies.

      Two years ago at Hannover Fair in Germany I caught my first glimpse of Festo’s ventures into biomechatronics. At the event, Festo introduced its automated herring gull (a seagull to those of here in the U.S.), which it referred to as the SmartBird. Essentially, the SmartBird is a light (less than 16 oz.) flying robot with a wingspan of more than 6 feet that can autonomously take off, fly, and land. Behind Festo’s development of the SmartBird is the company’s belief that learning more about efficiencies in natural motion can help deliver efficiencies in its automation technologies.

      At this year’s SPS/IPC/Drives show, Fest unveiled its latest biomechatronic flier, the BionicOpter. This device is inspired by the dragonfly and can hover, fly in any direction, and glide.

      According to Festo, the BionicOpter features thirteen degrees of freedom through control of the shared flapping frequency and twisting of individual wings in addition to an amplitude controller on each of the four wings. Amplitude control allows the intensity of the thrust to be regulated. When combined with the tilt of the wings to affect the direction of thrust, the remote-controlled dragonfly can reportedly assume almost any position in space.

      The BionicOpter’s aim is to demonstrate the use of integrated systems, allowing it to identify and evaluate “complex events and critical states”.

      R&D of this type underscores Festo’s concept of integrated automation based on its CPX automation platform . Dr. Ansgar Kriwet, a Festo management board member, noted at the SPS/IPC/Drives event that CPX is helping position Festo to take advantage of the Internet of Things as it develops because the CPX platform can integrate field device bus systems as well as industrial Ethernet.

      Festo’s view is that through using integrated systems for automation technologies, the most efficient and natural ways of performing tasks can be found and then implemented safely, creating a more productive manufacturing environment.

      Read more at Automation World.


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      Explaining the value of automation

      Posted: December 3rd, 2013 | By: Eagle Tech


      With manufacturers investing in automation technologies and training employees to use and maintain them, it’s only natural that company executives would begin to ask what the value of all of this technology really is. Automation World’s David Greenfield asks the question, “As someone who’s responsible for automation at your company, do you know how the executives at your company view what you do?” He asks this because, although there has been a surge in investment in automation, there has not been a clear answer what to do with automation, or the information that comes from it.

      The reality is that your company’s executives probably see what you do and the technologies you oversee as being a cost. Though this is not your fault—industry as a whole has come to view automation technology as an industry that exists principally for technology’s sake.

      With automation comes information, and that information is currently being collected at a fast pace. But what is being done with it?

      To bring things back to a true problem/solution mindset, Martin said it’s critical to realize that, as Einstein said, “information is not knowledge.” Capturing and storing data that is rarely, if ever, used is counterproductive and a symptom of an ill- thought-out automation system application. You have to realize—and be able to communicate— that automation “puts knowledge to work.”

      Thankfully, this idea of putting knowledge to work is starting to happen more often as more companies—and automation suppliers—are focusing on technologies that deliver actionable intelligence to the operator where immediate decisions can be made to benefit the bottom line in real time.

      By putting the information collected by automation technologies to use is the best way to show the value of automation technology. Reducing waste and increasing productivity and efficiency are always looked highly upon by executives.


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