Written by Bob Gross, President, Gross Automation
Can Automation Alleviate Many Supply Chain and Labor Issues and Increase US Manufacturing?
On June 7th, 2022 I had the honor of addressing the local chapter of the MBBI of Wisconsin (Midwest Business Broker and Intermediaries) on this subject at the Wisconsin Club. This is the third in a three-part discussion on the topic.
What Is Automation?
Automation can be many things. One of the most common ideas is that it must involve a robot. That is simply not true. While robotics plays an important part in many industrial applications, automation can be defined as anything that helps make the operation run more efficiently or increases the quality of the finished product.
A really simple example of basic automation is that we have a customer that bores metal blanks that ultimately become engines. One motor drills the hole and the other motor supplies the cooling fluid to the process. The traditional way of controlling the motor was by using a contactor and an overload relay, protected by fuses. Because of an update in the code, we are now able to control that motor in half the space using manual motor protectors and still provide the same amount of protection. Also, the newer technology allows us to add digitalization to the process so that we can monitor and control the process upstream while applying rudimentary intelligence to the process.
Wind farms are popping up all over the landscape. If you notice them at night, they all blink at the same time – together as mandated by the FAA. We designed and built the control systems that coordinate those lights on a wind farm down in Illinois. The added benefit of our system is that as regulations dictate the brightness of the light, we can increase and decrease them to cut back on the disruption of the local population and the area’s wildlife.
Another automation application is using a DCS (Digital Control System) to bring a concrete batching plant together. With a shortage of concrete to build things like our Zoo Interchange and the Marquette Interchange, the production needed to be ramped up. Separate machines did different processes from incoming, drying aggregate, mixing components, and packaging finished products for final shipment. We tied all of these together, making it a visible process for single-screen control of the system. A single operator can monitor and control the entire operation from start to finish.
As lead times increase, the supply chain becomes more and more important. That means that we need to better understand our supplier partners and proactively work with them to establish and maintain inventory levels appropriate to the business. That means that our bankers and financial consultants can help by funding the growing delta between orders, inventory, and shipments. Knowing that inventory will need to grow to offset delivery issues and customer receivables will take linger to collect, traditional lines may need to be rethought and reconstructed for this new reality.
Additional inventory requires additional space, both for storing and for the staging of project jobs. If there are 20 items on a BOM (bill of material) and we can get 19 of them fairly quickly, we need to stage until the 20th piece arrives. One of our projects had just that issue. We had everything needed by May with one exception – and that is scheduled for the end of October. There we sit.
I feel energy efficiency will play a larger role moving forward. Simple automation of HVAC systems, pumps, fans, and lights will result in cost savings on a core level. We are moving forward with solar technologies, energy storage, and EV charging systems within our facilities. As a manufacturer, we are looking to expand our product offering in this area as well by building components for use in the alternative energy market. Cheap, plentiful energy moves society forward.
Bringing It Home
Yes, while automation can alleviate many supply chain and labor issues, it can enhance solutions to those very problems. Yes, this sets the stage for increasing US manufacturing as well. To do this, we need to do a better job of collaborating. Manufacturers, supply chains, integrators, OEMs, and end users all need to share their intelligence and plan accordingly to keep things moving like the well-greased machine we used to have. Companies like mine need to be ready to engineer solutions and design alternatives to match what is available. We also need to look at new markets and be more receptive to new suppliers. With this in mind, we will be competitive and we will win in the global marketplace.
Let’s build our future together!
This completes the three-part series that I began in July with the second article in the August IBAW Newsletter. Thanks for your time and your attention as we explored this. If you wish, please reach out to me, and let’s continue this conversation.