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Precision, speed, less injury drive automation for Northern California manufacturers

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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.

Automation is like a football pass.Dick Herman, 101mfg.com

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.

“They need to analyze a lot of data to get them to the final answer of whether a product is good or not, or whether a drug or therapy is good or not,” Happ said.

This automation in science has forced Labcon to get more precise with each product. From grids or plates of 96 samples for automated testing, now Labcon produces grids with 384 wells with the same overall footprint to work with existing lab equipment such as incubators and freezers.

Once Labcon dialed in the new designs for the automated factory floor, then it had to produce the items faster to keep prices of the semicommodity products in line with those of at least 40 competitors worldwide.

“That’s how we can compete against the Chinese and the Indians,” Happ said.

Production efficiency and faster time to market have been helped by locating a Steris Health product-sterilization center a half-mile away in 2015 and constructing a 40,000-square-foot automated distribution warehouse next door to it two years later. Together, they have cut Labcon’s order lead time in half, Happ said. Now, large orders can be shipped in two weeks, down from a month, and the lead time for small orders can be as short as seven days.

Among the latest factory investment is a $1 million assembly line that cut the cycle time per product from 14 seconds to seven.

It used to be (our workers) were afraid of robots.Jim Happ, Labcon North America

From conception of the process to make more efficient to purchase to installation, training workers and debugging the system often takes about a year, Happ said. That includes repositioning other robots to increase the efficiency further.

“It used to be (our workers) were afraid of robots,” Happ said. “And now the employees are like, ‘We need a robot over here to make this thing go faster.’”

But it took a cultural change to reduce the fear of automation. Producing six times more products daily means the sales team also has to sell that many more, Happ said.

But also key to competitiveness for Labcon is engineering a way for it to remain in Sonoma County, given rising commercial property rents.

“If you don’t stop at some point and purchase your real estate, you will get priced out of the market,” Happ said.

And to help sharpen its competitive edge, Labcon is working with Bluechip Infotech of Australia on temperature-monitoring sensors that would be built into the lab supplies to provide critical information on the temperatures a sample has been exposed to during its trip from the hospital or other collection location and the point of analysis, as well as tracking patient information. That product launch could come next year, Happ said.

ROBOTS HAVE VINTNER WORKERS’ BACKS

For Rack & Riddle, the motivation to spend well over $5 million installing earlier this year on robotic bins and cages to handle heavy cases of sparkling wine plus automated materials-handling robots helped reduce employee turnover and handle a surge in production without having to add additional shifts in the limited labor pool, according to Mark Garvanta, general manager.

Before, seven to nine workers would grab four empty bottles at a time to put them on the filling line then pick up as many crown-capped bottles to load into metal tirage bins for bottle fermentation that’s part of the methode champenoise process of sparkling wine. The system designed by Maspack Packaging USA in American Canyon has robots handling the unloading of empties and two bots rack the filled bottles.

It's a very physical job to do for eight hours a day.Mark Garvanta, Rack & Riddle

That has allowed Rack & Riddle to increase the speed of its bottling line from 140 bottles a minute, up from 90 in years past, to over 200, Garvanta said.

“It’s a very physical job to do for eight hours a day,” he said, noting that the thicker glass for sparkling wine plus the liquid results in full cases weighing up to 50 pounds each. “Some temps would work a couple of hours then go on break and not come back. We’d try to rotate folks, so there would not be ergonomic issues.”

And the disgorging process of sparkling wine production is set for upgrades later this year. The bottle neck freezer currently moves through 45 bottles per minute, with equipment further down the line handling 50. The new neck freezer can handle 75 a minute, and other equipment is rated for 100.

These upgrades allow a single shift working five eight-hour days to produce 250,000 cases of sparkling wine a year, instead of two shifts for that volume. Including other winemaking, total production has doubled to 550,000 cases annually.

Rack & Riddle will still have 85 full-time employees after these upgrades, but it won’t need the 15-25 temporary workers brought in daily around harvest, July-October.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Contact him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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