Precision, speed, less injury drive automation for Northern California manufacturers
From laboratory consumables to sparkling wine, North Bay manufacturers are spending millions of dollars on new industrial robots, part of a rising global wave of investment in technology that seeks to do more faster, with higher accuracy, lower cost and less worker turnover.
From the sling to the spear-thrower to the wheel to the lever to the sailing ship, devices that multiply human effort into greater accomplishments have been around for millennia. But the rise of machines in the workplace started taking a leap forward a half-century ago, when the space race accelerated innovation and led to increasing automation of tasks such as evaluating a flood of data from sensors and crunching equations to give decision-makers real-time usable information, according to Dick Herman, who leads the 101mfg.com association of California manufacturing executives.
Such innovation has led to a several technologies being built into production, assembly and materials-handling lines, Herman said. Sensors mimic human senses such as sight, hearing and touch, and networks relay that data back and forth like our nervous systems. Actuators approximate workers’ fingers, hands, elbows, shoulders, legs and feet. Software tech such as artificial intelligence and specialized algorithms to flag patterns in “big data” parallel functions of the brain.
Integration of these technologies with each other and various devices is leading toward factories where robots work together in teams, like employees do, Herman said. And the internetworking of machines, factories and data sources across distances small and large is the vision of the “internet of things,” or IoT.
“Automation is like a football pass,” Herman said. “Two bad things that can happen are you take more time than you ever thought it was going to take and you spend more money than you ever thought it was going to cost. And the good thing that happens is if you’re a learning organization, the opportunities are tremendous.”
The Business Journal explored why Labcon North America in Petaluma and Rack & Riddle custom sparkling wine vintner in Healdsburg are diving into such automation.
THE $40 MILLION BOOST: BETTER, CHEAPER, FASTER
At Labcon’s 125,000-square-foot facility, 250 workers make 6 million parts daily for laboratories in hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and research facilities globally. That’s up from 1 million a day with the name number of employees, according to President Jim Happ.
The difference is the $40 million the company has spent on robotics over the past 15 years. The factory now has 55 such devices.
And in that time, annual sales have doubled, to $40 million.
This drive toward mechanization of tasks and automation is partly because of competition for the 1,600 disposable plastic products Labcon makes and partly because of more exacting demands from customers, Happ said.
“When you have a robot do something in a repetitive manner in manufacturing, the quality of the product is higher, and the efficiency of making it is higher, the output is higher,” he said.
When Labcon first introduced its hinged pipet that allows for drawing a measure of liquid from a sample to transfer it to another location, such as a tube or other vessel bound for a centrifuge, lab technicians were drawing up to eight or 12 liquid samples at a time.
But now lab robots are pulling 96 or even as many as 384 samples at a time, handing them off to other bots that load them into an analyzer or incubator. And automated systems examine the samples, creating hundreds of millions of data points to explore treatment options based on different patients’ physiology, such as blood type.