Manufacturing the New High-Tech Environment

The world of manufacturing is getting cleaned up. The dangerous, dark and dirty machine shop is going away, and being replaced with automated assembly lines and robotic cells. Going to work in this new environment will require only a willingness to learn, says Mike Buchli. And if you have learned how to use SOLIDWORKS, you may already have what it takes.

Buchli knows manufacturing from both sides, high-tech and otherwise. Born on a Nebraska farm, he spent years working in a machine shop and is a veteran SOLIDWORKS user. He now programs robots and promotes automation for Dassault Systèmes.

This is Part 2 of our interview with Buchli. Part 1 is available to read here.

What does automation look like in manufacturing?

Automation comes in all shapes and sizes. There are no two companies that are the same; even if they produce the same goods, they still are different. They all have different methodologies. Automation can be putting in a pick and place, or it could be a conveyer system to move bulky material.

We have one customer that does sheet metal forming where the part weighs 100 pounds. It takes two people to bend that part, and a full 8-hour day. Nobody wanted to do it because that’s a lot of labor. We took that 100-pound part and put it in a robotic bending cell. This freed up the employees to bend the small parts.

Sometimes, automation is just work balancing. You don’t have to do the bad things. Instead, we’ll automate that part and allow you to continue to do the things that benefit from you doing them.

Can a factory be fully automated?

Everybody’s on a different journey with a different starting point. Some companies are more fully automated than others. Other companies are doing point solutions. For example, they can’t get anyone to weld anymore, so they put in a robotic welder.

How hard is it to get people to work in manufacturing these days?

To attract people into manufacturing, there must be jobs that they want to do. How do we get those people and solve this problem? We give them tools to allow them to be successful in something that they want to do. It may sound like we’re caving to what everybody wants to do, but let’s face it: no one is going to work in a dirty environment. We have to change that environment.

The other thing is that manufacturing companies all end up on the same side of town. Go to a city and there will be an industrial area where all the manufacturing is done. All those companies will fight over the same employees, and there are a limited number of people who can get to that area. If you are in a rural area like where I am, there’s a shortage of people and some of these small towns cannot support an influx of new people.

That’s where tools like manufacturing platforms can be useful. I can write a program to program the robots offline and send it to the small-town shop. Here in Lincoln, Nebraska, I can go find the best talent for my specific manufacturing need because I can connect them virtually to my facility without having them move to Nebraska.

Is the expense of robots a deterrent to automation?

A robot can cost $30,000 to $100,000. But look at the wages of a manufacturing employee compared to the cost of one robotic cell. Even in the middle of rural Nebraska, that is $25 to $30 an hour, plus health care, plus unemployment. Soon you’re up to $100,000 per employee—whether they’re effective or not.

Robots on the shop floor. Picture from 3DEXPERIENCE World 2023.

If not the expense, then what is stopping automation?

I sit in on a lot of groups to hear why, and there’s one theme common to them all. They know they have to do something; we know we need to put in automation, but we don’t know how to do it. We don’t know how to make the right choices. A lot of companies don’t get started because they don’t want to make the wrong choice. It’s not a matter of people. It’s because there is no one to guide them on their journey and ensure their success. A lot of companies don’t buy a robot, or they put in a robot and don’t know how to use it.

Is this a matter of lack of education?

No. All it takes is someone with the ability to learn technology. A lot of robot programming and factory simulation is like a video game. Anyone who can learn SOLIDWORKS can do it. It doesn’t matter if they have a degree, because in 3D you can see it.  

Is the perception of the manufacturing environment changing?

Yes, that is one of the challenges. Manufacturing still has the perception of being a dirty, unsafe environment—not high-tech, which is what it really is. Think about what is on TV these days. Firefighting dramas, police dramas, doctor dramas… only certain professions. You’re not going to see a robot programmer nicely dressed in Grey’s Anatomy. No, it’s going to be a greased-up guy that got his finger cut off in the machine shop. The doctor will be the hero. You might get one episode of a show where they go to a manufacturing or automotive facility and it’s always dirty, dark and dingy. No wonder parents are telling their kids, “You need to be a doctor, a lawyer…”

People are missing that manufacturing is very high-tech and very clean. Most of it anyway. And the jobs are well-paid. You can make a good, sustainable life for yourself in manufacturing doing high-tech work.

How hard is it for women and minorities in manufacturing?

Again, it comes down to the perception of manufacturing. Because traditional manufacturing jobs require backbreaking labor, right? Pick up these heavy parts and put them in this machine. But it’s becoming high-tech and clean, and you can work remotely because you can connect through platform applications. There’s not much awareness that these jobs are for everyone. We’re still positioning the manufacturing workforce as being one way, and so we’re missing a lot of the workforce. Studies and stats have shown women are way more detail-oriented than men. That’s what robot programming is: detail oriented. And clean.

Read Part 1 of our interview with Mike Buchli for more about manufacturing automation.

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