(This is the second article of a three-part series on small- and medium-sized manufacturers and robotics.)
The high bay at Buffalo Manufacturing Works is a vast showcase of advanced manufacturing technology.
In a conference room on the upper floor of a repurposed Buffalo, New York, factory, Mike Garman is teaching his quarterly “Robotics 101” course. The automation engineer’s students comprise about a dozen representatives from eight local manufacturers. Owners, managers and operators, all are getting their first taste of automation.
The program is being put on by Buffalo Manufacturing Works, an independent, non-profit engineering consultancy, tasked with leading manufacturers into the future.
This particular group – plastic parts makers, packagers, metal fabricators and machinists – eventually gets to the best part: a robotics demonstration.
They are led from the conference room into the “high bay,” an immense space filled with robotic arms of all shapes and sizes (including one nicknamed “The Hulk”) as well as giant 3-D printers (which look like time machines lifted from H.G. Wells) plus an array of other advanced equipment.
A Michigan native with extensive experience in the field of industrial robotics, Garman is a self-described do-gooder on a mission to save manufacturing. Like some modern-day Willie Wonka in safety glasses, the affable 48-year-old guides the group of manufacturers whose eyes collectively light up like kids in a chocolate factory.
“World of pure imagination,’” is a phrase Garman uses often.
“Small manufacturers generally have no idea what kinds of advanced manufacturing technologies are out there,” he said.
“That’s because they tend to do things the way they always have. But when we show them the automation and how it is being used, suddenly they get it. They start thinking about their own process and are able to envision what might be possible in terms of improving efficiencies.”
About 1,600 small- and medium-sized manufacturers call Western New York home. Each employs between ten and 300 workers. Garman and the other members of the team at Buffalo Manufacturing Works will have engaged with at least 250 of them by the end of next year as part of a program, Shift, designed for smaller companies that need a helping hand exploring things like robotic arms.
Formally launched in December 2017, Shift provides innovation advisory services to area manufacturers at no financial cost to program participants. In addition to advisory services, Buffalo Manufacturing Works also specializes in applied research and development in the field of additive manufacturing (i.e. 3-D printing) as well as pioneering work in metrology (measurement science) and inspection technologies.
Demonstrating self-sufficiency, Buffalo Manufacturing Works also does fee-for-service consulting work, advising more than 100 manufacturers, both locally and nationwide, on projects such as technology assessments and vendor selection.
All told since its launch, Shift has resulted in meaningful pro bono engagements with nearly another 200 Western New York area manufacturers on the verge of embracing new innovations in order to stay competitive and to offset labor shortages.
In 2015, New York State invested $45 million to create Buffalo Manufacturing Works to offer local businesses a resource center with automation, 3-D printing and metrology programs all under one roof. Operations were awarded to an existing nonprofit, Columbus, Ohio-based EWI, which traces its roots back to the early 1980s.
What began as a state-funded welding “institute” evolved over the decades into an internationally recognized center dedicated to materials joining technology. More recently, EWI expanded its activities to include an entire portfolio of technical capabilities and has teams of industry experts serving clients across the country; in addition to its technology centers in Columbus and Buffalo, EWI operates a third site in Loveland, Colorado. EWI’s original mandate was to spur innovation in the economically battered Midwest, a mission rooted in the idea that technology could, with EWI engineers’ guiding hands, find its way onto factory floors that otherwise would be empty owing to, in part, the off-shoring and automating of traditional processes.
New York State’s economic development agency, Empire State Development, asked EWI to do a feasibility study: could they replicate their activities in Buffalo? And be an honest broker when matching local factories with various manufacturing solutions? That study eventually led to the opening of Buffalo Manufacturing Works in 2015. Over time, honing and developing Shift, the organization saw a chance to impact more and more manufacturers.
Garman works closely with senior managers and front-line operators, counseling them on how to identify and prepare themselves for the kind of innovative technology processes that will allow their companies to better compete and to grow.
“It’s like the old saying, give a man a fish and you feed him for one day,” Garman said.
But teach a man to fish, or, rather, teach a company to innovate, “and now you are helping them long-term,” he explained.
The Buffalo Manufacturing Works team began its mission by finding out what was being made in the Buffalo area, and how it was being made. They will go into a company and perform an assessment to see if the company is ready to take steps to innovate. Based on this first step, the manufacturers receive some recommended curriculum, such as Robotics 101 and Change Management, to begin their learning process.
After the classes are finished, over a multi-month period, the manufacturers next participate in an Innovation Audit. That’s where a team of engineers and specialists review processes to see what “quick win” improvements can be made. The audits are done by Buffalo Manufacturing Works and Insyte Consulting, which specializes in understanding the needs of America’s small manufacturers.
“Sometimes robotics might not be the right fit,” Garman said. “There are other technologies beside robots.”
In 2018, New York State committed another $35 million, providing an opportunity to move Buffalo Manufacturing Works from its initial downtown location into a new facility inside a restored factory on Buffalo’s gritty, resurgent East Side. The structure, once the centerpiece of a historically industrial neighborhood known as the “Northland Beltline,” was formerly the home of Niagara Machine and Tool Works. Their factory was built in 1911 to make the enormous stamping presses used in heavy industrial processes. It shut down in 1989.
Restoration of an abandoned stamping press factory – 250,000 square feet of utter dilapidation – took 600 tradesmen working through the brutal Buffalo winter on an equally brutal deadline (as fast as possible); the project involved 200 tons of steel and 30,000 cubic yards of concrete. The old industrial ceiling crane wells and pulley wheels were restored and left in place to loom overhead as a constant reminder of Buffalo’s manufacturing legacy, said Nadine Powell Hartrich, operations manager, EWI. “We kept the historical integrity but designed a space that would inspire innovation.”
The project kick-started what is envisioned to be a world-class “advanced manufacturing” corridor, uniting, at Northland Central, not only Buffalo Manufacturing Works but its main collaborative partners: Insyte; Northland Workforce Training Center; Buffalo Niagara Manufacturing Alliance and World Trade Center Buffalo Niagara.
Insyte has been one of Buffalo’s few “manufacturing process excellence” champions, going back decades; the Northland Workforce Training Center, meanwhile, is teaching automation repair, machine tool and welding technology, industrial machinery and more to students from local high schools. The programs are co-sponsored with areas universities, including Alfred State and Erie Community College.
That there is activity in what had been a vast emptiness has given new hope to a forgotten neighborhood hungry to rise up.
“People in Buffalo know how to endure,” Rev. Jeff Carter, a local pastor, has said.
Training tomorrow’s workforce goes arm and arm with educating factory owners. But there is another resourceful role to be played by the automation industry itself.
Makers of robots are almost entirely based outside the U.S. (e.g. Japan’s Fanuc, Switzerland’s ABB, South Korea’s Doosan and Denmark’s Universal Robots) but there’s a sub-industry of engineers and technologists, distributors and advisors – collectively dubbed “integrators” – that sprang up in cities such as Detroit during the 1980s and 1990s as its automation industry began to spring up around the activities of the auto industry.
Systems don’t just get taken out of a box and plugged in; there are custom builds, programming complexities and combinations of technologies, and so consultative automation experts, like chefs combining ingredients to serve up gourmet meals (to use an analogy of Garman’s), played a role installing and maintaining robots and systems made by an array of competing companies with their own salesmen and distributors, forming an integrator community to serve manufacturers in the region.
Big companies operating plants in Rochester, N.Y., such as Kodak, Xerox and 3M, were, like Detroit’s car makers, automating during the 1970s and ‘80s; and so a similar integrator ecosystem formed, serving companies throughout the Northeast.
Automation had been around since the late 1960s (when it first came into the automotive industry) but the technology was always evolving, becoming better, safer and less expensive. Starting around 2005, the International Federation of Robotics had sounded a trumpet for the operational efficiencies of robots.
Many “first robot” projects involve the automating of repetitive machine tending or some form of back-breaking loading/unloading (e.g. boxes on and off pallets). “Often, due to automation the worst job at the factory becomes one of the most desirable, basically overseeing a robot,” explained Richard Mikulec, a senior systems integrator at Rochester-based Aloi Materials Handling and Automation.
These days, with lifelike AI-enabled humanoids acing Turing tests and videos of robot-dogs going viral, there is heightened attention being paid to robots.
However, robotics systems are boringly commonplace within the setting of large manufacturers. Large companies have always had the resources to find technology solutions in-house. Smaller factories need help.
“A few small companies have automated on their own but most are afraid to take the first step,” said Keith Boicourt, sales engineer at Rochester-based Minuteman-Empire Automation Systems. “They just don’t have the resources.”
East Aurora, N.Y.-based Astronics LSI, a maker of airplane lighting systems, featured prominently in the first part of this series. The resources provided to them by Buffalo Manufacturing Works and the Rochester-based integrator community proved crucial to their taking definitive steps to begin to identify processes that could be made more efficient using automation.
In tomorrow’s article, the third in this three-part series, we’ll learn how Astronics took the steps to successfully implement their first-ever robot.
(This series will conclude Friday Nov. 29; part one of the series can be found HERE.)