May 03, 2017      

Many companies today face the same conundrum that Baltimore-based Marlin Steel Wire Products LLC faced 15 years ago, before it considered robotics integrators. Known as the “king of the bagel baskets,” the Baltimore-based company produced a commodity wireframe basket to hold bagels. Each employee handcrafted approximately 15 baskets a day.

But then problems occurred: Injury rates rose, demand for bagels declined, and China entered the scene, producing baskets at lower prices than the cost of the steel.

That’s when owner Drew Greenblatt realized he had two choices: go bankrupt or automate. He chose the latter, and the results have been stunning. Job-related injuries have practically ceased, workers have skilled up, the company has hired more employees, and overall productivity has gone through the roof.

With an investment of millions of dollars in automation, Marlin Steel has gained a worldwide reputation as a quality supplier of custom metal forms, baskets, racks, and containers.

In fact, the company is now an industry leader and because of its quality and precision products. Marlin Steel is able to supply a growing market in the medical, pharmaceutical, automotive, and aerospace industries.

Business Takeaways:

  • Robotics integrators are a critical part of the industrial automation supply chain, not only for the supplier but also for the end user.
  • Ergonomics and safety are a vital reason companies today are integrating robots; reducing injuries and increasing productivity is an easy sell for companies considering the cost of investment.
  • Collaborative robots are not a direct threat to robotic integrators. As cobots become more mainstream, especially in non-manufacturing environments, integrators will likely still be viewed as a vital player in the supply chain.

The role of robotics integrators

Marlin Steel illustrates a perfect use case for partnering with a robotics integrator in today’s fast-paced manufacturing market. Installing a robot is one thing, and major suppliers such as ABB, FANUC, and KUKA provide support.

Robotics integrators must work with end users to select the best components.

However, the “nuts and bolts” of the setup process — from mapping out the cell to installing, tooling, and programming devices — is where the robotics integrator comes into play.

“Robots are the general product, but the end effector is where the rubber meets the road, and that’s the purview of the integrator,” said Jim Mail, regional sales manager at ABB Robotics.

The rapid expansion of industrial automation also validates the importance of robotics integrators. According to a recent report, the global industrial automation control market will have a 7.59% compound annual growth rate between 2016 and 2020.

In addition, the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) reports that by 2018, approximately 1.3 million industrial robots will be entering service in factories around the world.

Robotics integrators play a key role in the automation supply chain, not just because of the services they provide companies adopting automation, but also because robot suppliers depend on them.

“Integrators are very important to robot makers because that’s the path to product,” Mail said. In other words, without the integrator to fit and customize the robot arm, the robot will be of no value.

As Mail likes to point out, “A robot is a 4000-lb. paperweight unless you know how to program it.”

Ergonomics and safety drive the market

Industrial accidents cost companies billions of dollars a year in lost revenue, disability, and compensation. According to one report, overexertion and repetitive motion injuries cost companies $21.05 billion in 2013.

Increasingly, manufacturers are considering automation as a way to reduce the toll of injuries.

“Just recently, I met with a company that does a lot of grinding, and it was a perfect opportunity for a robot,” said Don Davis, president and owner at Minuteman-Empire Automation Systems in Wakefield, Mass. “After all, this poor operator doesn’t have to do this. … Those kinds of jobs have high turnover, high medical rates, high repetition, and are hazardous.”

Robots are great at performing dirty, dull, and dangerous tasks, he noted.

“Much of what drives the ROI [return on investment] consideration in discussions with companies is ergonomics and environmental health safety,” Davis added. “This is a big sea change in the way people think about adding robots to a factory. The big question is, How do I keep workers from getting injured?”

Robotics integrators respond to cobots

Although manufacturers and supply chain companies understand that robotics integrators are a critical part of industrial automation However, one question that pops up frequently is, “How will the industry will react to the new breed of collaborative robots, such as Rethink Robotics’ Baxter, that are easy to install and program?”

Frank Tobe, editor of The Robot Report, had this observation about the role and future of integrators:

“Recently, with the advent of plug-and-play collaborative robots and the growing use of newer and more user-friendly methods of training and programming, it was thought by many that integrators would become a dying breed replaced by super-capable and easy-to-install and integrate multipurpose robots. We’re not there yet nor are we likely to be there for many years to come.”

The cobot is a technology very much in its infancy, and the value proposition is still emerging.

“My experience with cobots has not been successful in the manufacturing environment,” observed Davis. “They’re just not an industrial type tool, though ABB YuMi is bridging the gap.”

Robotics integrators shouldn't worry too much about cobots.

Cobots from KUKA and other vendors may be easier to use, but integrators are still needed to aid in robotics adoption.

“Cobots have become a big buzzword in the industry, but it’s also a gray area,” cautioned Mail.

Robotics integrators don’t expect an immediate threat from the emerging cobot sector.

“Integrators are not concerned that their business is going to dry up anytime soon,” said Bob Doyle, director of communications for the Robotic Industries Association.” There’s always a need.”

More on Industrial Automation:

The future of robotics integrators

A popular narrative that has circulated in recent years suggests that rapid automation will eliminate jobs on a massive scale over the next two decades. Case studies like Marlin Steel suggest that robots are actually creating jobs.

“It used to be that if a company replaced a worker with a robot, it traded a low-skill work for someone who is a robot programmer,” Mail said. “However, as robots have gotten easier to use, the guy on the shop floor can now be trained to program the robot. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to do it, and that’s better ROI for the company.”

For robotics integrators, that’s good news. As the robotics industry continues to grow in the next decade, the role of integrator will continue to flourish as well.

For the past four decades, automotive manufacturers were the primary users of robots. They’re already beginning to spread to the food, retail, hospitality, and other service industries. Those sectors will require the services of integrators to set up the robots, while also assisting with human-robot interactivity.

Indeed, the future looks very bright for robotics integrators.