Published in Manufacturing

Automation firms pitch robots as solution to social distancing for manufacturers

BY Sunday, July 05, 2020 02:34pm

Robotics and automation could offer manufacturers a key way forward to operating in the post-coronavirus environment because of their ability to reduce workplace contamination and worker interactions. 

That’s according to Tim Boeve, president and owner of Zeeland-based Hil-Man Automation LLC, who thinks of robots as the ultimate solution to a problem that’s become top of mind for manufacturing executives in the months after COVID-19 first made its way into the corporate lexicon. 

Tim Boeve, president and owner of Zeeland-based Hil-Man Automation LLC, views automation as a key option for manufacturers to address social distancing concerns on their shop floors. COURTESY PHOTO

“We have always built equipment to minimize human input,” Boeve said. “Robotic cells and the like are more dependable than the human process.” 

West Michigan manufacturers across a variety of sectors are rethinking floor layouts because of the need for social distancing practices that can reduce outbreaks of COVID-19. 

Limiting face-to-face contact with others is the best way to subdue the spread of the deadly virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To practice social distancing, people must stay at least 6 feet from others infected with the virus, many of whom may not outwardly show symptoms or signs of the disease.

While Troy-based Precision Extraction Solutions designed its KPD series of industrial extractors to reduce overhead for manufacturers while increasing productivity, the automated system is in demand because of the need to change working conditions to slow the spread of the coronavirus. 

The company’s emerging cannabis technology, released in late 2019, has been deployed by some of the largest cannabis brands and manufacturers around the world, according to Nick Tennant, founder and chief technical officer at Precision Extraction Solutions.

The KPD series of machinery automates the process of extracting cannabis used for making CBD products and THC distillates like vapes and edibles. The KPD series requires two to four operators compared to upwards of 30 people to operate alternative “batch processing” setups with similar processing rates, according to Tennant. 

“People typically have unreasonable expectations when it comes to batch processing,” Tennant said. “Batch processing is extremely laborious and if you think about having seven or eight or nine extractors to be able to equal the throughput that something like this (KPD extractor) does, you’re talking about running those batch extractors 24 hours a day, you’re talking about having three shifts of people and you may well employ 40, 50, 60 employees in order to do the same work that four employees could do with a plant such as this.” 

In addition to allowing processing companies to scale their operations and increase output while maintaining social distancing, the modular, self-contained system can be installed inside or outdoors and takes just a few months to deliver, which is important as manufacturers scurry to get back to pre-COVID production levels. 

“It’s plug and play,” Tennant said. “You can drop it onto a slab on a farm, you can drop it in an industrial building or any number of turnkey solutions.”

Shift to recovery

Manufacturers are already doing what it takes to get back to pre-COVID production levels as quickly as possible, according to Jerry Foster, chief technology officer at Troy-based Plex Systems Inc., a provider of enterprise resource planning technology. 

“Due to social distancing requirements that we expect will continue for months ahead, we expect that the appetite for cloud-based solutions and automation tools, both of which help address workplace health and safety requirements, will attract more interest in the near future,” Foster said. 

Plex Systems tracks data on thousands of factories around the world and has been monitoring production across multiple industries throughout the pandemic.

The food and beverage industry has already surpassed pre-COVID-19 production levels, according to the data. Many industries are not far behind with production rates at about 75 percent compared to pre-COVID-19 levels. North America is “surging,” Foster said, posting 54 percent growth in production transactions as factories reopened. 

“Consumer demand seems to be a driving force in sector recovery, combined with that industry’s ability to manage workforce health and safety at scale,” Foster said. “Automotive suppliers have been relatively quick to recover from their all-time low in April because of pent-up demand from buyers, which has put pressure on automakers and their suppliers to restart operations and deliver new vehicles.” 

Comparatively, aerospace and defense manufacturers have been slower to recover because of the lack of demand for commercial flights.

Michigan automotive production activity is at 78 percent of its activity during the week of March 8, just prior to the COVID-19 restrictions. From its lowest point of production, the week of April 5, Michigan automotive production activity has increased by a nearly incomprehensible 1,471 percent, according to Foster. 

Role for tech

Plex Systems has also been tracking worker login information relative to productivity among smart manufacturers. Through the worst of the pandemic, logins in North America dropped to 44 percent of pre-coronavirus levels, while production activity dropped to around 17 percent of pre-coronavirus levels during that same time. 

This indicates that although operations were reduced, many workers were able to do their jobs remotely and rely on the cloud to keep the company running, according to Foster. Globally, worker logins are now at 93 percent of pre-COVID-19 levels of activity.

Manufacturers will likely continue to invest in solutions like automation, robotics and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) that allow for remote machine monitoring and predictive maintenance, or cloud-based technology that lets companies continue to run their operations while reducing the number of staff required on site, according to Foster. 

“On the shop floor, we’ll likely see workers using augmented reality (or) wearable technology that can deliver real-time work instructions and knowledge along with connected devices such as smart glasses, headsets or tablets and smartphones, all of which allow manufacturing workers to do their jobs without crowding a single workstation to record production,” he said. “As manufacturers look to spread out their line workers, the use of cobots will become more attractive by allowing for more worker density on the line, where we can no longer put humans shoulder-to-shoulder.” 

More coming?

In the Grand Rapids region, 48 percent of jobs are “susceptible to automation,” according to a January 2019 study from the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C. 

Automation will take place everywhere, but manufacturing tasks in West Michigan are particularly ripe for robotics. In fact, more than 70 percent of manufacturing tasks could be automated, according to the data.

While the company has not yet correlated an extreme uptick in requests and new business that are related directly to the coronavirus outbreak, Hil-Man and its subsidiary Precision Dispense Technologies LLC have been busy, according to Boeve. 

“Our business has been very fortunate,” he said. “We’ve added three new people since the reopening of manufacturing and we have a funnel of new work. I can envision in the future here, when these big companies that we supply equipment to get a better idea of what’s going to happen within the industry, they’ll want to see what they can do to minimize or to create better social distance between operators.”

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