Automotive suppliers are buying record numbers of production robots as they race to keep pace with rising vehicle deliveries.
Based on first-quarter sales, North American suppliers are on a pace to boost robot purchases 22 percent to a record 7,872 units this year, according to the Robotic Industries Association, an industry group in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Robot sales are getting a push from smaller suppliers attracted by falling prices and improved versatility, says Jeff Burnstein, president of the association.
"A robot that would have cost $50,000 ten years ago might cost half as much now," Burnstein says. "You don't need huge capital resources or a tremendous in-house engineering staff."
One doesn't expect to see robots in a factory such as that of Vickers Engineering, a machining and fabrication company.
The plant's front office, along a rural two-lane road near New Troy in southwest Michigan, resembles a medieval castle, complete with a drawbridge to the front door.
Back in 2006, company CEO Matt Tyler was struggling to reduce an annual employee turnover rate that ranged as high as 42 percent at Vickers, which makes engine brackets, exhaust components, turbocharger housings and other parts.
Tyler was especially vexed by a workstation that produced an elbow, an exhaust component for the Ram pickup's diesel engine.
The component and the manufacturing fixture that held it weighed 25 pounds, and two workers at the workstation were expected to lift, carry and reposition hundreds of these components per day.
It was exhausting work. "It was a two-person job, but we always had three people in the cell because somebody was going to quit," Tyler recalls. "We were constantly training people. Nobody wanted that job."
In 2006 he decided to buy a robot from Mori Seiki Co., a Japanese machine tool maker. The robot transferred the elbows to the next workstation, eliminating the need for workers to lift and carry them.
At the time it seemed like a big risk for Vickers, a small company with projected revenues of $30 million in 2013.
"We were incredibly nervous about it," Tyler says. "We didn't know how to service the robot, and we didn't know its capabilities."
But the experiment paid off. The plant boasts 12 robots, and Tyler plans to buy eight more over the next three years. Productivity is up, and Tyler expects to double sales to $60 million by 2016.
Vickers and other suppliers are benefiting from major advances in machine vision.
Now, robots can identify parts in a bin well enough to pick out the right one for assembly, says Neil Dueweke, general manager of the New Domestics Group at Fanuc Robotics America Corp. in suburban Detroit.
That allows robots to handle more than one type of component, and this versatility allows manufacturers to schedule low-volume production runs.
"You don't have to run high-volume batches," Dueweke says. "You can run multiple parts down the line."
Equally important, the technology has become cheaper. In the 1980s, a manufacturer might spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy machine vision for a robot.
Now, Fanuc's customers can expect to pay $5,000 extra for a robot with machine vision, Dueweke says.
Robots also are easier to program, a big plus for small manufacturers with limited engineering staffs.
For instance, Fanuc has designed a welding robot with a setting called "easy normal." The engineer programs the robot so that its welding torch moves near the component to be welded. Then the robot adjusts the torch's position more precisely to produce a better weld.
"It's easier for the maintenance guy," Dueweke says. "He doesn't have to be an expert."