Automation experts: HTE Technologies helps make automation a reality

Visiting HTE Technologies on April 2 was a little like stepping into a scene from “The Jetsons.”

Automated carts delivered drinks to attendees. A pallet-carrying robot moved back and forth between destinations, avoiding people and finding alternate routes if blocked by a crowd. Another device piggybacked a robotic arm on top of an autonomous cart — the system safely moved between people to receive and deliver pieces at specified stop points.

Just like the futuristic society depicted in the 1960s cartoon, HTE was using its 2019 New Technology Showcase Event at their St Louis Westport area headquarters to demonstrate how today’s advanced collaborative robots and autonomous vehicles can work side-by-side with humans — a former vision that’s now reality.

One demonstration area showcased a robot interfacing with a CNC lathe to load and unload parts without any guards needed to protect onlookers. Another area showcased how machine vision is used to inspect finished parts for defects.

Seeing these machines operate in close proximity to people is an important advancement in technology and a complete paradigm shift in how the manufacturing world now can view robotics. In many factories today, all traditional industrial robots are caged beasts. Humans have to be kept away from their fast, powerful motions with physical barriers and electronic safety devices.

But these latest collaborative robots, dubbed “cobots,” are designed to do their tasks amid humans, working elbow to elbow with production workers. They are quick and efficient in their human-like moves yet sophisticated enough to stop when they bump into people who get too close.

Autonomous mobile robots are similarly designed to perform tasks in and around people using refined mapping software and speed-relational safety scanners. They smoothly and safely navigate around temporary obstructions and are sophisticated enough to slow down or stop if a human gets too close.

This annual technology showcase event helps HTE demonstrate how advancements in factory automation technologies can help manufacturers across Missouri, Kansas and Illinois increase production, eliminate defects, and improve plant floor safety and worker satisfaction.

The company, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary, prides itself on being on the cutting edge of the automation revolution. President Kim Shearburn — who happens to be a fan of “The Jetsons” — sat down with Missouri Business to discuss his business and the state of automation.

Missouri Business: What is the origin of HTE Technologies?

Shearburn: This company started 60 years ago. When I was 5, our next-door neighbor started the company with four other St Louis area manufacturer’s reps. My father then bought it two years later. I grew up in the business. The business began to divisionalize into separate business units six years later. This provided the separation of the technical talent and the sales talent, allowing us to effectively bring a diverse set of technologies to industry. That focus on emerging technologies is what has led us to refer to our HTE Automation group as the “the bot and vision people,” as we focus daily on applying collaborative robotics and machine vision technology to applications in manufacturing.

MB: With your history in this industry, how has automation evolved in the US manufacturing industry?

Shearburn: I always lamented that serious plant floor automation — including automation safety — came to the U.S. manufacturing scene about 10 years too late. In the 1990s, manufacturing executives were almost condemned if they didn’t offshore. Every Wall Street stock analyst was asking all the major U.S. manufacturers at the quarterly briefings, “When are you going to go offshore or to Mexico?” It was almost like a forced flight, and yet those of us in industry had no coherent array of automation advances to compete with the cheap labor overseas.

Here in the United States, the real advances in automation productivity started in the late 1990s and throughout the early 2000s. These technological advances paralleled the growing adoption of LEAN philosophy in manufacturing, another very critical piece of the American-made productivity improvement puzzle. Sadly, along the way the America public, and many national leaders, erroneously gave up on America being able to compete globally in discrete manufacturing. The crazy thing is, the U.S. has always ranked at the top of all countries in terms of manufacturing output and productivity. It’s a shame, but the American public was led to believe that manufacturing was dead in our country and that we were going to become a service economy.

MB: Have things started to turn around in recent years?

Shearburn: Over the past decade, major gains have been made in the area of safe robot-human interface along with advanced communication protocols, sensor and wireless technologies. What’s going on in online retail, the Amazon effect, is driving a lot of manufacturers to understand that the world has changed.

Unlike large production volumes common in the automotive manufacturing supplier world, today’s manufacturing focus must be on plant floor flexibility and quick changeover capabilities to meet shorter product cycles and lower-volume production runs. That’s led to some of the most exciting collaborative robotic breakthroughs in manufacturing applications. The traditional guarded, expensive industrial robotics, which required lots of programming expertise and massive production volumes to create an acceptable return on investment, has now morphed into lighter, faster, more agile and precise robots that cost a fraction to buy and implement and maintain, yielding ROIs in terms of months, not years.

Pre-programmed software apps, think smartphones, use advanced algorithms and wizards that minimize installation, setup and troubleshooting time, allowing line workers to take ownership of the work cell and their cobot workmates. 

The paradigm shift to a whole new world of collaborative robots and mobile robots that work elbow-to-elbow with plant floor personnel is now in the making here in the Show-Me State, complete with our cobot demonstration vans and demonstration labs in St. Louis and Kansas City.

MB: Are we kind of at a tipping point where we could see mass adoption of automation in U.S. manufacturing?

Shearburn: Due to a lack of awareness about the recent advances made with cobots, the U.S. is currently behind the global adoption curve but is catching up. Globally, the tipping point is going to occur in the top 10 manufacturing countries over the next two to four years, both in manufacturing as well as in medicine and healthcare.

The great news for both the U.S. and Missouri is that small to mid-sized business are a target audience for cobots. Low price and ease of implementation and use, without the need for any staff programming expertise, make it a very flexible new tool for even very small machine shops and device manufacturers. 

More important than “when” the tipping point will occur is what it means. For the U.S. and other high labor cost countries, this cobot evolution coupled with Industrial Internet of Things, 3D manufacturing and artificial intelligence all add up to become the fourth industrial revolution that has the opportunity to completely disrupt the last 30 years of global manufacturing strategy.

Right now, if we took a poll of Missouri manufacturers, most have some form of factory automation, but only 10 to 15 percent have traditional industrial robot work cells or inline industrial robots. Most plants and products do not lend themselves to full-blown dedicated robotics. Contrast that with the year 2030, when many industry experts expect that 50 percent of all U.S. manufacturing plants will have adopted some sort of collaborative robotic technology in manufacturing, inspection, parts handling, packaging and logistics.   The consensus is that collaborative robot adoption will double each year for the next five years, and that puts the tipping point out about three years. At that point, all productions managers, safety managers, human resources managers, facility planners (and) product design managers will be challenging themselves and their teams to substantiate why any given dull, dirty, dangerous or error prone task has not yet been assigned to and designed around a collaborative human/cobot solution.

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