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By Charles Newbery

Once dull, hot and noisy, factories in Volusia County are hipper today. Automation, collaborative robots and 3D printers are making operations faster, leaner and responsive to change, a big help for lowering costs, increasing productivity, adapting quickly to consumer demand and dealing with a labor shortage.

In factories around Volusia County, a once noisy contrast to the playful beaches, it’s getting quieter on more of the assembly lines. Workers tap on computer keyboards to design parts for airplanes, cars and rockets, and 3D printers knock them out, almost silently.

This is an emerging technology known as additive manufacturing, or printing layer upon layer of metals, plastics and other materials to make an object.

3D Material Technologies (3DMT) specializes in this at its Daytona Beach plant for manufacturing components for the aerospace, defense, industrial and medical industries. In March, Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings, a California-based maker of rocket engines and propulsion systems, acquired the company to expand its additive manufacturing capacity.

Ashley Nichols, director of additive manufacturing at 3DMT, describes 3D printing as a convergence of traditional manufacturing processes such as brazing, stamping, welding and assembly, adding that this improves the performance and reliability of its products.

“By printing things, we’re able to add in features that we were not able to with conventional technology. We can combine parts so that we get the reliability from integration and reduce the processing steps,” he said. “If you reduce the number of parts, you are reducing the number of people in the supply chain so you can also reduce the lead time and the overall cost of the components.”

Before, manufacturers would acquire or build the specific tooling machines to make components, a process that could add up to a year to the lead time, or the total time it takes to manufacture an item.

“With additive manufacturing, you are able to skip that investment step as well as the lead time to create that part,” Nichols said.

This makes it cheaper and quicker to get products to market, improving a manufacturer’s competitiveness in pricing
and delivery.

Collaborative robots

In Volusia, as in much of America, the shift to additive and other advanced manufacturing technologies started a few years ago. While some manufacturers are behind, others are so advanced that their plants look futuristic, said Jayne C. Fifer, president and CEO of VMA, a manufacturers’ association in the county.

Take Pall Corporation. It recently added its first collaborative robot to its filter production line in DeLand. Simple to program, the robot can be set up in seconds and easily operated. It can even hand parts to people without any safety concerns, said Ryan Theodore, the manufacturing technology manager at the plant.

The robot reduces costs. Instead of employing two workers at a combined 80 hours per week, the robot requires only 10 hours a week in oversight, he said.

That is a key with automation, “to get the maximum output from it with as little operator interaction as possible,” Theodore said. “Ideally, you’d load your raw materials and get a finished product out the other end. That is basically all you want the operator to be doing.”

The robot, he said, is doing the repetitive, menial tasks that are hard to fill. This makes it vital at a time when low unemployment makes it “very hard to find workers who are trained or stay on the job,” he added. “Incorporating robots helps eliminate the need for new workers. We can keep our more skilled workforce and not have to hire on so many new people when we implement collaborative robots. Instead of hiring somebody off the street who doesn’t know how to do this job, we can incorporate a robot
and move whoever was in that position to something
more meaningful.”

At the same time, this improves efficiency and productivity. “The robot doesn’t go to lunch, it doesn’t call in sick,” he said. “When you are trying to plan your production schedule, you don’t have to worry about whether you have the right people to do it. You always have this robot and you know that it is going to perform the task.”

This helps in two ways. First, it lowers costs, helping to make it possible to attract skilled labor with higher wages. Second, the robot makes the factory a cooler place to work “by showing that we’re wanting to move into the future and keep up with the manufacturing trends,” Theodore said.

Tight labor market

The push to technologize is a response to multiple factors. For one, a decline in prices has made technology more affordable, allowing smaller factories to modernize. But as important, it’s become imperative that they technologize if they want to remain competitive to not only sustain sales but also to attract and retain talent at a time when there are fewer to hire.

American factory jobs plunged to a low of 11.5 million in 2010, or 9% of the workforce, from a record high of 19.6 million in 1979, or a fifth of the workforce at the time, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The decline came as more people snubbed the career as boring and dirty, heading off to university instead. At the same time, many manufacturers shifted operations overseas, in particular to China and Mexico, for lower wages, tax advantages and other savings, focusing on design and functionality at home.

These forces have put manufacturers in a bind. They have an aging workforce that’s starting to retire, but few youngsters want to join their ranks.

The solution is to invest in automation to fill the hole left by a decline in skilled labor, Fifer said. “They have no other choice.”

Lucky for manufacturers, there has been a “mammoth change” in career mentality. More youngsters think it’s alright to skip college and instead get certificates, even in high school, to land a job, including in a factory. To be sure, manufacturing employment has increased since 2010, reaching 12.8 million jobs this year.

It’s still a tight market. More manufacturers are moving operations back to America, attracted by the fast advances in technology. This is increasing demand for workers, including in Volusia County, where the areas’ more than 450 manufacturers make everything from aerospace products to batteries, boats, communications equipment and semiconductors.

High entry cost

Still, not all manufacturers can afford the leap into advanced technology.

The Sparton De Leon Springs facility, has taken the jump to automate some of its processes for making sonobuoys, a complex product that is dropped from airplanes into the ocean to track submarines with a sonar system.

The company has installed computers at each workstation to improve the performance of its workers. For example, 3D modeling software has made it possible to reverse engineer step-by-step animated processes that workers can watch on the computers to assemble the product. “These new animated processes replace the long and painful activity of writing every assembly step, and makes it easier to understand and faster for operators to learn,” said Jim Lackemacher, Sparton Group VP.

Another software program collects performance data from each workstation and summarizes it on a dashboard that can be monitored on a computer or mobile phone. “That brings a lot of gains in the cost to produce because you have a quicker alert that you have a problem,” Lackemacher said. “The faster you see the problem and react to it, the quicker you eliminate the cause.”

The cost reduction is helping Sparton to better capitalize on the growth in demand, which is driving a 5% growth in annual revenue, he said.

Can it automate more?

Where it makes sense. “It doesn’t make sense to fully automate just for the sake of automating given that the high cost associated with design, production and maintenance could make the return on investment period too long to make it worthwhile,” he said.

“If not automated, a manual process can still be made more efficient and productive by ‘fail-proofing’ to minimize substandard performance, including administrative tasks like accounting, contracts and human resources,” Lackemacher said.

What’s next?

Back at 3DMT, Nichols said the benefits of automation are already evident. In April, Aerojet Rocketdyne completed initial testing of a prototype of its next generation RL10C-X upper-stage rocket engine that contains major components produced with its 3D printing technology. The result: it expects to reduce the lead time by 35% to 50% and the overall engine cost by 25% to 35%, while improving the engine’s thrust capabilities and fuel economy, Nichols said.

More improvements are expected as these technologies are perfected. But as with any technology, the question is if a disruption is around the corner. Fifer expects a steady development. “We’ve had the ‘wow’ moment,” she said. “Now it is going to evolve based on the pricing of machines and competition and labor availability.”

Still, companies will be on the lookout.

“Additive is going to be a big part of industry going forward,” Nichols said. “But I’m sure there will be something out there in the future that starts to take part of this market as well.”

Charles Newbery

Charles Newbery is a freelance journalist and writer. His work has appeared in the Financial Times, LatinFinance, The New York Times and other publications. He also writes business content for companies and ghostwrites op-eds for executives. He can be reached at charles@charlesnewbery.com.