17th annual Joint Open House helps manufacturers make the leap into automation

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The carpet was rolled out yesterday for the 17th Annual Joint Open House in early May with four of the industry’s largest machine distributors – Elliott Matsuura Canada, Ferro Technique, EMEC Machine Tools and DMG Mori – taking part. They were joined by many of metal manufacturing’s top suppliers such as Sandvik Coromant, Walter Canada, Schunk, Haimer Canada, Kennametal, Renishaw Canada. and Zoller, showcasing everything from cutting tools and workholding solutions to metrology and additive manufacturing.

As diverse as the steady stream of job shop executives dropping in during the initial day of the two-day event proved to be, they came to the Joint Open House looking to solve two main issues: the need to automate to deal with the pressing skills shortage and affordable ways to finance that automation.

“There is a huge lack of skilled workforce and that hasn’t changed for at least 10 years. I think people are starting to accept that automation of processes, including processes they may not have thought of, along with new and innovative tooling and cutting techniques, cutting programs is the solution,” said Ferro Technique’s new president, Peter Sheridan. Ferro Technique had a number of automation solutions on display that could immediately help job shops by, for example, taking over some of the most mundane jobs, such as loading and unloading parts, allowing shop staff to concentrate their time on more value-added work.

“Everyone is looking for some level of automation and anything they want to buy, they’re saying they need to be able to run it around the clock because they can’t find the people to run an evening shift. Automation is a topic we are discussing with virtually every customer that we speak to these days,” added Vince D’Alessio, president of Elliott Matsuura Canada. The large equipment distributor showcased the different levels of automation it has on offer but D’Alessio pointed out it doesn’t stop there. “They are looking for us to support them through the whole process. It might mean helping them set it up and teaching their people how to get the machine up and running.”

Making the automation itself easier to implement and deal with is also critical, mentioned Stevano Setiadi, national sales manager for DMG Mori. He added that while many job shops may want to make the switch to automation, they remain hesitant their operators don’t really understand how to program robots. To address that challenge DMG Mori is connecting all of its software to manage a seamless manufacturing process and integrating automation into it. It’s also standardizing its automation systems so they all have the same look and feel and can be programmed in the same way.

“When working with the work handling system, carrying individual parts with the robot arm, we have a built-in management system that makes it an easy drag and drop process. All the operator needs to do is upload the file and follow on-screen step by step instructions. This means operators don’t need to learn robot programming. They just have to follow preset menus to program the robot,” Setiadi explained.

Ferro Technique’s Sheridan concurs, pointing out that concerns about automation being too complicated are being addressed with new approaches such as cobot technology.

“Before it used to be a daunting task to automate. You would have to buy robots and get an integrator and get someone to design conveyor systems. Now there are companies producing out of the box solutions. You just put the cobot in front of the machine and it will load and unload parts for you and it’s very minimal setup work that needs to be done to get it up and working. We showed that at the Open House and I believe it will pick up some momentum because of how easy it actually is,” Sheridan said. “The price point is pretty good for what you get. It’s redeployable to other machines so it’s very versatile. I think that will fit the market of what shops are wanting. They just want to try it and see how it works. They’re willing to invest a little bit of money, but they don’t want to invest half a million dollars.”

The same level of creativity is required in helping job shops finance the purchase of such automation solutions, said Tejal Mehta, vice president of operations at EMEC Machine Tools. There are small and medium-sized job shops limping along with old technology that prevents them from being as productive as they need to be, but high interest rates and the challenges of cash flow during subdued economic conditions make them hesitant to invest in new technology.

“So how do we help them,” Mehta asked. “We have to be as creative as possible. One of the things we are doing is looking to offer more competitive interest rates in the form of either providing subsidies or buy-downs, a lot like the auto industry. We are trying to be as flexible and helpful as we can by providing extended terms. The third thing is the price of the capital equipment. We have to understand that we have to reduce our margins. It’s a competitive industry, everyone is fighting for the same opportunities. And the last part is the issue of being risk averse. It means are you prepared to take a little bit of risk with a particular customer to put a machine on their floor? When the economy is hitting you on several sides with negative impact, you have to decide whether you want to be willing to put a machine in knowing there is a possibility a customer may not be able to pay it and the machine could come back.”

At the same time, Mehta thinks the federal and provincial governments can be providing more stimulus to encourage small and medium-sized shop owners to invest in new technologies. He said that while the US has been very good at providing depreciation incentives for capital equipment purchases for its manufacturers, Canada lags behind.

“What builds our business is the new shop owners who start a business or the existing small to medium-sized businesses getting bigger. I’ve seen a big decline in new shops starting up,” Mehta said. “Our governments don’t provide enough stimulus, which is why Canada is losing the productivity race to other countries. They’re not getting enough stimulus to help them purchase equipment.”

And the programs that do exist aren’t always well known by industry. Setiadi explains that some government programs are technology-driven and require investment in specific technologies to qualify for the grant. He’s seen several cases where customers didn’t even know the grants existed until his sales staff mentioned it to them.

Elliott Matsuura Canada worked with its lending partners to come up with a special financing arrangement that was launched at the Joint Open House. They weren’t the only distributorship to do so. However, D’Alessio says it’s still important to place high interest rates as an obstacle to new equipment purchases in perspective and not let it get in the way of a smart decision.

“I’ve always said if you have the work to keep the machine running, the interest isn’t a burden. It’s more of a psychological barrier when people think they have to pay double the interest rate they were paying a few years ago. But if you have the work, the burden of the interest rate is not an issue,” D’Alessio said.

At the end of the day, staying competitive requires understanding what’s driving your market when it comes to technology and the Joint Open House provides exactly that kind of opportunity every spring.

“Technology is rapidly changing, particularly with AI there is new software consistently being implemented. By going to the Open House shop executives can see the latest technologies and gauge how far behind they may be and consider implementing these new technologies in the future,” said DMG Mori’s Setiadi.

The 17th Annual Joint Open House concludes today.

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