As a company that has operated for more than 70 years, Jenison-based Nu-Wool Co. Inc. certainly was not oblivious to the fact that higher levels of technology and automation could transform its production process, according to executives.
But, like most small to medium-size manufacturers, they were a little hesitant to embrace it.
“I think it’s sort of that ripping the Band-Aid off theory,” said Matt Henderson, vice president of Nu-Wool, which produces cellulose insulation out of mostly recycled newspapers.
“Until you do it, you hear all these horror stories. We fall into the small-medium-size business. For us, a lot of times it seems the focus is always on big manufacturers. I think that it’s kind of scary for a smaller manufacturer that doesn’t have the resources to really support it.”
Nu-Wool took a leap forward two years ago when it invested more than $200,000 in an automated packaging system, complete with a robot.
Before that, Nu-Wool utilized a semi-automated bagging system and workers to manually stack pallets and load trucks. The company was filling five truck loads each shift, with roughly 1,200 bags in each trailer.
The decision to embrace automation came from the fact that workers were experiencing a high level of low-impact injuries and labor was growing harder to find.
With the system, the company was able to spare four employees on each shift from loading and packaging.
“We didn’t have a programmer on staff,” Henderson said. “We have no one that understood robotics on staff here when we decided to do it. I guess it’s like biting the bullet and winging it and seeing what happens. This was our biggest barrier to entry.”
The new solution was not an instant success. In fact, Nu-Wool’s early experience with the system was quite rocky. Henderson said that — had it not partnered with Walker-based automation service provider Feyen Zylstra LLC to iron out the kinks — Nu-Wool’s robot would likely be sitting in a warehouse right now.
With Feyen Zylstra helping to dial in the system, Nu-Wool achieved its return on investment in less than two years.
Now, Nu-Wool is working with Feyen Zylstra to mine data from its system for predictive maintenance and efficiency purposes. Henderson said the company is also exploring avenues to automate its sorting process in which metal and other materials are removed from the raw newspaper material before it is processed.
“I would love to have a manufacturing plant with one or two people at it,” Henderson said. “The technology is not there — at least not at a cost-effective rate for us right now.”
Barriers to entry
Nu-Wool’s dilemma is a common one, and much of the reason why manufacturing behemoths have remained on the cutting edge of Industry 4.0’s latest innovations, from machine vision and big data to sophisticated AI.
But that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.
Dan Radomski is the director of Centrepolis Accelerator at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield. His accelerator has attracted Industry 4.0 tech startups from around the globe, giving Radomski a firsthand look at cutting-edge innovations that are just now finding a place in manufacturing.
Centrepolis has corporate partners that feature the likes of Magna International Inc., Lear Corp., Siemens Ag, Denso Corp. and Whirlpool Corp.
These are sophisticated innovations that smaller manufacturers could easily adapt, as well.
“Plenty of them are very practical,” Radomski said. “In fact, we partner with a lot of the regional manufacturing associations and we have regular events where we only bring the more practical technology companies (to present to smaller manufacturers), especially what we know are applicable to small and mediums.”
Still, he doesn’t see much interest, which is concerning for him.
“Trust me, other manufacturers in other parts of the world will adopt these technologies and become more efficient and by that they’ll be more competitive globally and will win more business,” Radomski said. “You can’t continue to just work on low margins and think you can bid projects and win them.”
The right partner is important for smaller manufacturers to bridge the knowledge gap. For Nu-Wool, it was Feyen Zylstra. Mission Design & Automation also works in this capacity.
The Holland-based business custom designs automation systems, and CEO Scot Lindemann said that working closely with the client is what helps companies like his stand out from a traditional OEM.
“I think the strength of a good systems integrator is being able to go in and evaluate with the customers and figure out where their needs are and where their payback will be,” Lindemann said. “To make sure the technology and application fits both those criteria.”
Lindemann said that, while some companies may have dabbled with automation in the past and were left with a bad taste in their mouths, technology has already evolved quite rapidly in a short period of time.
The COVID-19 pandemic is one factor that has forced the hand of some smaller manufacturers.
“Typically the smaller they are, the less likely they’re going to be looking at implementing new technologies, but I think COVID has changed that completely,” said Ken Seneff, co-founder of Lean Rocket Lab in Jackson, which is a manufacturing technology-focused business incubator. “Everyone, up and down the stack, is looking at technology.”
While a fully automated, AI-driven, lights-out production system isn’t necessarily the play for smaller manufacturers, Seneff said there is still plenty of advanced technology that easily scale to their needs.
“Certainly (large and small manufacturers) will be looking at different types of technology and different scales,” Seneff said. “Some technology is only going to be useful at an enterprise scale versus certain technologies that will only be useful at a smaller company scale.”