The Robot Generation: Faster, Better, Stronger

ToolnorthRobotics has come a long way, from the anthropomorphic designs popular in science fiction (think C-3PO from Star Wars or the robot in Lost in Space) to today’s various industrial processes. And while the robots used in manufacturing may not suggest a humanoid shape, their ability to do repetitive work very efficiently makes the human customers happy.

“We’ve been building robotic systems for 20 years,” said Fred Leishman, vice president of sales at TranTek Automation Corporation in Traverse City. “They can do a lot – pick up, set down, load and unload materials.”
They also provide “flexible automation platforms” for customers, Leishman added.

Automation processes are utilized by many companies around the region. Many of them have been using robotics for two decades or more, and a number of them also create robots.

Trantek designs and builds automated welding, material handling and assembly solutions. Though focused mainly on the auto industry, it has diversified since the recession of 2007-8.

“We’re still probably 70 percent automotive,” Leishman said. “We’ve made inroads to some non-automotive customers. We’ve done a lot of work for water heater companies, blender suppliers, and defense work.”

Several members of the Northwest Michigan Tooling Coalition, including companies from Mancelona, Kingsley and Kalkaska, incorporate robots into their manufacturing processes.

ToolNorth is one of those companies, providing numerous robotic systems for various companies, according to Gary Barg, the vice president/secretary/treasurer of the company. Again, the automotive industry is a key player, as well as heavy equipment.

Barg said their customers typically come to them with a need, and the company then tries to come up with a solution. “They give us a part and the volume (they need), and say, ‘What can you do?’ A lot is going to robots,” he said.

For example, a customer might require a specific die made of powdered metal be turned and fastened into place with a cycle time of 3.6 seconds, thousands of times a day. Where a person might be able to do the task, performing it with the efficiency of a machine over and over and over is not in anyone’s best interests.

“Robots are very efficient,” he said.

Skilled Manufacturing, Inc. (SMI) has been in the robotics industry for more than 15 years. Like TranTek, much of its work is done with the auto industry. SMI has subsequently developed numerous partnerships with TranTek.

Brooks Holland, the director of engineering for the company’s automotive division (it also has an aerospace division), said one advantage of the arrangement is it allows for flexibility in handling large-scale jobs. Some of the jobs require such a significant investment in time and resources that it would take all of SMI’s team to work on just one.

“Some are so big they would need all our engineers,” said Holland. “(So) our engineers work together.”

Holland said the working relationship between Trantek and SMI is enhanced by the fact the two companies are in close proximity.

“The beauty of it is we are in the same town,” said Holland. We both learn from one another.”

Holland believes the auto industry’s increased focus on computerization also lends to increased opportunities in robotic development. Where there were once numerous mechanical systems, now there are computer systems that need greater efficiency in not only repair but in manufacturing.

“Cars have a lot more sensors and programming,” he said, leading to a need for more error-proofing verification.

Such processes depend on machines rather than people.While the automotive industry was an early adapter of robotics, the recession of 2007-08 greatly impacted local companies such as ToolNorth and TranTek. TranTek even closed down its Grand Rapids office.

That led to such companies’ efforts to diversify. Today, Leishman said the auto industry’s improved health and continued – even growing – focus on efficiency has strengthened his company’s outlook. That includes re-opening an office in the Grand Rapids area. “We have some customers there, and have an engineering and service office,” Leishman said.

“We’ve made inroads to non-automotive customers, and the automotive industry as a whole is strong,” he added. “We anticipate continued growth.”


Robots And The Future Workforce

Robotics has made its way from manufacturing to education, from college to high schools, middle and elementary schools.

Ed Bailey, the tech division director at Northwestern Michigan College, said the college’s emphasis on robotics stems directly from what area businesses are looking for. “We try to stay in touch with the talent needs in the region,” Bailey said. “As the need grows, we try to grow to fill the talent needs.”
NMC programs in robotics include welding and manufacturing. Between 30 and 50 students are enrolled in the programs.

At the high school level, the Manufacturing Tech Academy (MTA) at the TBAISD Career-Tech Center offers opportunities for study and competition. Hollianne McHugh, one of the tech instructors at MTA, said students learn not only how to build robots but also to program and drive them. Sophisticated, cutting-edge software acquaints students with industry standards. Each student also works directly with a local mentor. The resulting hands-on experience is invaluable.

Graduates have a number of options. “We see a real variety with what they end up doing,” McHugh said. Students have gone into engineering programs in college, others into medicine, while some have gone directly into the workforce.

Staff Sergeant Bryan Sevensma, an explosives ordinances tech with the U.S. Army, was among the first students at MTA to build and program robots. When he enlisted and saw a video including robotics and explosives, he immediately decided that’s where his interests lay.

One difference is that in driving robots at MTA, he could see everything. Now, the robots he uses to disarm explosives are a couple hundred meters away, and all he can see is what’s on the screen.

Philip Leete, robotics instructor at Traverse City West High School, said interest in robotics has exploded and led to extra-curricular programs that go from the high school down to elementary-aged students.

“Costs have gotten small enough, and we have more teams, smaller sizes and more robots,” he said.

That’s enabled TCAPS to create internal competitions, with teams competing in various challenges, such as moving balls, stacking items, and navigating around an obstacle course.

“We built a sports model,” Leete explained. “We have a season, and compete with 23 teams.”

That includes teams from West High School, West Middle School, several elementary schools, and other schools including Grand Traverse Academy, Glen Lake and home-schooled students.