On Sunday, January 17, Marlin Steel CEO Drew Greenblatt made a guest appearance on Manufacturing Talk Radio, a weekly internet talk radio show that specializes in discussing issues that are near and dear to manufacturers across the USA. From politics on capitol hill that affect manufacturers, to new and exciting industry trends, this show works to deliver important and exciting content to help American manufacturers keep in touch with new developments.
So, what was Marlin’s CEO on the show to discuss? How robotic advancements can help bring American manufacturing jobs back home.
Recapping Marlin’s Story
In his interview with show hosts Tim Grady and Lew Weiss, Marlin’s CEO started with a backdrop of how Marlin Steel got to where it is today as a company.
Founded in 1968, Marlin Steel started as a steel wire basket maker. For the next 30 years, the company would focus primarily on making commodity baskets for bagel stores, and business was good.
But, after the company was bought by Drew in 1998 and moved to Baltimore, MD, things changed. The double-whammy of the Atkins low-carb diet tanking the bagel industry and a flood of cheap baskets from China that sold for less than the cost of the steel needed to make them gutted Marlin’s once-booming bagel basket business.
It was clear that Marlin simply couldn’t compete in the commodity basket market based on price. As Drew states in the interview: “When you do the math, it didn’t make financial sense to compete in this environment… We had to transform.”
Fortunately, inspiration for change came when a Boeing engineer placed an order for a set of highly-engineered, precision-manufactured baskets. Meeting this challenge, however, demonstrated that Marlin needed to move away from the old hand-bending manufacturing practices that the company once relied on.
Going from Hand-Shaping to Using Factory Robotics
When making a basket that needs to meet tight production tolerances, the inaccuracies that are inherent to the old hand-crafting methods of doing work are unacceptable. Fulfilling that order from Boeing was one of the most demanding projects that Marlin Steel had ever worked on, as there was very little room for error.
To make fulfilling future high-precision orders easier and more consistent, Marlin Steel would have to update its repertoire of manufacturing tools; it would need tools that would allow the company to consistently operate on a millimeter or micrometer-precise scale.
Marlin Steel found this precision through the adoption of factory robotics.
Unlike a human worker, a computer-controlled robotic bending machine, cutter, or press won’t get worn out from the stress of repeating a specific set of motions for hours on end. In fact, robots excel at such tasks.
With robotic wire bending machines and other CNC equipment, Marlin was soon able to produce parts with a level of repeatable precision that the company had never possessed before. This allowed Marlin to charge headfirst into the precision manufacturing basket industry, where commodity baskets had no place.
The investment in robotics paid off in spades for Marlin, and the business has grown to eight times its size from when it was first bought by its current CEO. As Drew states in his interview on MFG Talk Radio, “If we had not done this robotic investment, this automation, we would be extinct.”
In this way, the manufacturing robots helped to save the jobs of every worker at the Marlin Steel plant. However, these robots have done more than just save jobs at Marlin, they’ve helped to create new jobs and opportunities for Marlin’s workers.
How Robots Can Bring Back Jobs to the U.S.A.
Conventional “wisdom” says that “if you bring on a robot, you’ll lose a worker.” This belief is steeped in the notion that because robots are more efficient and productive at certain tasks than human workers, companies will simply lay off workers if they add robots. Sadly, some companies might even try this, but this isn’t the case at Marlin Steel.
What followers of conventional wisdom forget is that although a robot might be more effective at manual labor than a human, there are a lot of things that robot needs help with or just cannot do, including:
- Routine maintenance
- Programming for tasks
- Set up and tooling for specific jobs
- Innovating more efficient ways to work
- Creating a custom design for a job
Just to name a few tasks. These are all things that need a human touch. A worker needs to check the robot’s systems and make sure that all hardware and software is ready for work. A person has to create the AutoCAD file that the machine uses to calculate how long a length of wire needs to be and how steep a bend should be.
For every machine that a company employs, there has to be a human on staff to keep that machine working at peak efficiency, or the whole investment goes to waste. This simple fact alone means that factory robotics can help create high-paying skilled jobs in manufacturing.
Robotics also help to make businesses more productive, increasing the efficiency, accuracy, and speed of manufacturing tasks. This allows American manufacturers to make more parts/products per worker, largely negating one of the key advantages of using foreign labor: cost of labor used per part.
For example, if one worker managing an automated manufacturing robot can make 120 complete lengths of bent wire for a basket in an hour, and a manual laborer can only complete 12 such lengths of wire in that same time, it would take ten times as many manual laborers to meet the productivity of one worker with a wire bending robot. This is assuming, of course, that each manually processed part could meet the same tolerances that the machine-made parts would meet, which is unlikely.
This productivity advantage helps to make manufacturing in the U.S. more economically sound, since there is less labor used to make each part. That these parts will also be able to meet production tolerances more consistently than manually-assembled parts further increases the productivity advantage.
In this way, factory robots can help to make manufacturing in the U.S. more attractive to businesses, encouraging the reshoring of jobs from overseas plants to the U.S.
American manufacturing is an integral part of the U.S.A.’s economy, and a part of what makes this country great. Manufacturing automation is one of the key tools that American manufacturers can use to get a leg up on foreign competitors and grow local jobs and businesses.
Did you miss the interview? Click here to listen