About Automation

Automation is what many of the IMTS attendees were interested in learning about and every major machine tool builder had several examples of automation in, on or around more than one of the machines on display.

The present unemployment rate is at 3.9 percent. And given that the generally accepted figure of 4 percent unemployment represents “full employment,” the unemployment rate is arguably more than full. Which leads to problems for those who are seeking employees.

While attending the recent IMTS show (imts.com)—where, for the first time ever, the complete McCormick Place facility in Chicago was full of exhibitors, exhibitors who were demonstrating the latest in manufacturing technologies, everything from five-axis machining centers to additive technology machines to machines that combine subtractive (i.e., cutting) and additive; everything from CNCs to PLCs and the software that networks it all, even going beyond the confines of the factory floor to the cloud—I talked with a number of machinery producers in their booths that were absolutely crammed with attendees—a record number of more than 122,000—who were seeking the aforementioned technologies.

One of the things that I wanted to know was what it was that they discerned the attendees who were cramming their booths were most interested in learning about.

The responses of these machine tool personnel—which were uniform (which is somewhat interesting given that many of these people are fierce competitors, all trying to get an edge on the other companies)—was surprising.

Person after person answered with one word, and it wasn’t “plastics” (and not because the shorthand for what IMTS is, as slightly inaccurate as it may be, is a “metalworking” show).

Rather, the word was “automation.”

Everyone, it seemed to them, was interested in getting machines that were equipped with the programmable devices that could move parts from spindle to spindle within a machine, that could move parts in and out of a machine. Accurately. Dependably. Repeatedly. Day after day.

Which, I must confess, puzzled me.

That is, I have been attending IMTS since 1978. And even though back in my salad days I didn’t know a hell of a lot about machining centers and turning machines, I can distinctly remember seeing pallet pools with parts fixtured on them being loaded into and out of machining centers; I can remember turning machines equipped with robotic arms that were loading and unloading parts.

That was 40 years ago.

That was the type of automation that I saw on display, in effect, 40 years later. (Yes, there are improvements, such as rather than having pallets that are organized on the floor there were towers connected to machining centers with the pallets vertically stacked; the arms within the multi-spindle turning centers had more dexterity than their predecessors were capable of.)

This is what many of the attendees were interested in learning about and every major machine tool builder had several examples of automation in, on or around more than one of the machines on display.

What I learned from the people that I talked with, companies of all sizes are finding it difficult to, well, find employees. What’s more, in cases when they find someone to hire, there are a variety of issues that sometimes arise, such as a certain lackadaisical approach to work (some of you may recall the old saw about not buying a car built on Monday or Friday because those two days were those when the workers were sometimes partially or fully indisposed to do their jobs—it sounds as if that’s back). Or the worker is doing a good job and because of the demand for labor, that worker moves on to take a more lucrative position with the shop down the street.

And let’s face it: machine loading and unloading isn’t the sort of thing that is ideally suited to workers when there are available, obvious and proven alternatives to handle the tasks.

If you have a good worker, chances are you want that person to be doing something that has more added value than performing a rote repetitive task.

This is not to say, of course, that there aren’t some situations when a person in the loop is most valuable, but in that case it is likely that the person is doing more than just moving mass: they may be doing a quick visual check of the workpiece surface or making sure that there is no interference in the work zone or making a modification to the workpiece.

But by and large automation is probably the answer.

This leads to the fearful claim by those who don’t understand manufacturing that “robots are taking workers jobs.” Odds are, those who are making that claim have never actually been in a factory more complex than Build-A-Bear. It is all too easy for those whose workplace is thrown into an utter tizzy if the air conditioning goes on the fritz or the delivery of Keurig pods is late to make it sound as though people want to do things that are likely to lead to repetitive stress injuries.

The people who were at IMTS 2018 understand the reality of the situation. And so they’re looking for automation.