Robots Rising

The latest in automation and technology are helping advance the state’s economy

Arizona’s return to economic primacy following the national recession of 2008 is an object lesson in strategic regrowth. Across the board, industries and market segments that had seriously faltered in 2008 and 2009 are surging back, bolstered by a strong economy and, for many, a more favorable tax climate.

One particular growth segment that’s helping put Arizona back on the economic map is its rapidly developing incursion into the highly futuristic world of industrial automation.

Steven Zylstra, president and CEO of the Arizona Technology Council, points to industrial automation and robotics as being huge factors in Arizona’s technology ecosystem.

“Our state’s top industries—semiconductor, aerospace and defense, autonomous vehicles and additive manufacturing—are some of the heaviest users and developers of automation hardware and software,” he says.

Zylstra, whose organization’s charter is to act as the first point of contact for all Arizona tech companies seeking to solve problems “out of house,” as he describes it, singles out Intel as being one of the most prominent Arizona-based companies helping to advance automation processes.

“[Intel] uses robotics and supply chain automation in their semiconductor plants, and they’re in the process of building the largest and most highly automated manufacturing plant in the world, right here in Arizona,” he says.

 

Planting the seed

In Arizona, automated technology—and its subset, robotics—has seen rapidly increasing growth, with new applications cropping up in a variety of manufacturing and related industries.

Lyle Rusanowski is president and CEO of Delta Technology, a Tempe-based automation and robotics manufacturing firm in this relatively nascent industry.

“The Valley is a particularly attractive business climate right now,” he says. “And its foundation in aerospace means there are a lot of companies that use metal parts, which is very conducive to using automation and robotics.”

Gary O’Dell, Delta Technology’s director of applications engineering, emphasizes that the attraction for growing automation technology companies in the Valley is the area’s focus on aerospace and high tech.

“We had aerospace and we had Intel, which caused automation-focused companies to follow them as one of their tier suppliers,” he explains. “What that did was to actually ‘seed’ Arizona with a healthy growth opportunity for the automation business that we’re in.”

But what sort of manufacturing activities are good fits for automation?

“One of our clients is a large plastic injection molding company and they couldn’t find [the human labor] that can take the product out of the injection molder and package it,” Rusanowski explains. “And so it became a matter of survival for this client. They had to find a way to automate taking the bottles off the line, and then packaging and palletizing them, because they simply couldn’t find the employees to do the job. Automation became essential to their survival.”

Zylstra points to another prominent example of the state’s entrée into automation. “The development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is one,” he says. “In fact, our state is the epicenter for military UAV testing, with one of the most extensive test facilities in the country at Fort Huachuca.”

 

Job threat or job maker?

One of the most prevalent concerns about the rise in automation and robotics regards the technology’s threat of possibly replacing humans with machines that can perform their jobs as well or better. But O’Dell disagrees with the premise.

“We simply don’t see automation as a threat to replacing labor,” he says. “Whatever human processes robots or automation replaces—essentially, in that job, you’re underutilizing human capital. That person can be doing a higher-value job.”

Dr. Heni Ben Amor, an assistant engineering professor at Arizona State University and a leading researcher in the field of robotics, agrees in principle with O’Dell. He thinks that the increasing use of manufacturing-based robots will, understandably, eliminate some jobs, but that the overall trend will create far more human-oriented jobs than it claims, and that humans and robots can live and work together in some kind of industrial harmony.

“For example,” Dr. Ben Amor says, “humans could do work requiring physical dexterity, such as attaching small screws, while robots working alongside them do heavy lifting or more repetitive tasks.”

Another critical factor in companies’ decisions to invest in automation is safety. “In one instance,” O’Dell explains, “a client had to temper a metal product by dipping it into a molten salt bath that was approximately 120 degrees. The company originally had employees handling this task, but it was clumsy and dangerous, and the incidence of injury was high. So we created a robotics solution that handled the process, and the company was able to take those people and give them jobs in other, safer, processes along the manufacturing line.”

Of course, profitability and cost reductions are always top of mind for any manufacturer. As Delta Technology’s director of operations Bob Remski notes, “Another thing to keep in mind about that particular example is that automating that process improves their quality and reliability immensely. They were able to get the time of the process and the reliability of the sequence down enough to help improve their profitability. They’ve got a big savings there.”

“At the root of it,” Rusanowski adds, “manufacturers are having difficulty finding employees to perform these repetitive tasks. So it’s the repetitive, the dangerous, the ones that require extremely fine motor skills that we’re seeing get automated.”

Bringing it home

The Delta Technology management team’s crystal ball shows an increasingly lucrative market for automation in the region. As American industry continues to improve—and jobless rates shrink—Remski projects that automation and robotics will help achieve some long-term goals for the U.S. economy, particularly helping to bring offshore jobs back to the U.S.

“Mundane and highly repetitive jobs are the ones getting more attention in the automation field,” he says. “Quality is a big issue, as well as with companies’ trend toward robotics. I’m seeing a lot of green industries—battery and solar cell manufacturing in particular—looking to automate some of their processes. Some of these products are susceptible to human touch, which adds another layer of need for automation.”

The future looks bright for automation, Rusanowski believes. “The underlying theme is that we have this extremely large—and growing—base of customers across a wide range of industries,” he explains. “And what ties it all together is that automation is absolutely essential to making U.S. and Arizona companies competitive in a world market.

If you try to do it with traditional human labor, then it becomes too expensive. If you try to go offshore to foreign companies [for cheaper labor], then you run into quality and delivery issues, along with supply chain control problems that also cost you money.”

Rusanowski says he believes that companies are finally realizing some of those challenges, and are trying to bring manufacturing back to the U.S.

“We’re finding that we’re able to answer this need by taking on and automating some of these ergonomically challenging,

or dangerous, or simply mundane jobs,” he explains. “We can put some automation into that process and get a two- to three-year payback on its cost. The bottom line is that it’s looking bright for automation and bright for manufacturing.”

 

Story: Bruce Farr

Photos: Mark Lipczynski

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