HEBRON, Ky.—There are various trends occurring in rubber manufacturing in America, including the increased use of automation to allow domestic production to be more cost-effective.
“I would say at the moment our business is strong. The inquiries for equipment and tooling and processes to mold silicone and rubber particles are ... at a healthy level,” said Scott Early, president at Hebron-based Desma USA Inc.
Many of Desma's inquiries come from customers that either want to automate in a semi-fashion or try to make the machine as ergonomically friendly as possible, he said, so that the company can “minimize direct labor content or the amount of time an operator stands in front of a machine removing the part or removing the runner system.”
Desma also speaks with customers who have a goal of having one operator doing several tasks while the press is open or having one operator running multiple machines, he added.
John Baines, president at Hahn Automotive USA, also based in Hebron, said he has watched rubber manufacturing trends change for the last 15 years. Initially, firms leaned toward traditional manufacturing plants without automation. Next, production went overseas to countries such as Malaysia or China. And now more rubber goods manufacturing is coming back to America and bringing more automation into it “to make it more competitive and control it.”
“I've seen a stronger willingness more recently to invest in ways to make rubber production in the U.S. more productive or competitive,” Baines said, adding he believes it is only feasible through automation.
Case for automation
Baines said the tipping point for automation in rubber manufacturing is because there is a stronger sense of quality. When outsourcing was the rage, product quality was not as good as it should have been, and there was pushback to improve it, which he said was a difficult proposition when production was overseas.
Secondly, Baines said he thinks current-day automation is done a little smarter and is more flexible. For instance, one piece of equipment that would produce one part in the past “is now being designed to produce a series of parts or a family of parts.”
If that is not the case, a company possibly could run products at a cycle rate much higher than it could have done in the past, Baines said. That would allow a manufacturer to take in more business without really expanding its plant or making other investments.
“Things I am hearing from our customers are that this process or this equipment is really going to open doors for them that they didn't have before,” he said. “So it's pretty cool to hear that enthusiasm, and really the investments aren't anything crazy. It's just an approach that is trying to understand the needs of rubber manufacturers especially.”
Desma USA has a staff of engineers that work on evolving machinery, Early said, and invests in younger people, including some recent graduates from the University of Cincinnati, to try to teach them what the company has started in automation.
“It's our job to continue to evolve and provide solutions that help North American molders,” he said. “Our customers, they challenge us, and we're growing. I think there is a future in properly designed production systems.”
Selling customers on automation
While automation is becoming more popular, some still hesitate.
“I think the hesitation is that it's a fairly competitive industry, so where material costs are such a high percentage of the product and margins can be really low, that if any kind of uncertainty enters the picture, then it's pretty hard to know what kind of return on your investment is going to be for automation,” Baines said.
The challenge is to find areas for assembly equipment where rubber production is not just machine tending, but it also includes some value-added assembly processes. That is when he said automation can be beneficial.
A company only can make so much money by making a part, Baines said, but if it can add value to the part and sell it to its customer, there's a lot more opportunity to grow its top line. When a company gets into these more complex assemblies and introduces non-rubber components to the process, then the firm also needs to add people with a wider range of experience and knowledge, he said.
Automation is a fixed expense that happens early in the cycle, but with that, it is unclear how many pieces are really going to end up being produced and how it will play out at the end, Baines added.
One way to help customers understand the process is simply to speak with them. “I think you have an open discussion about the level of technical support that's needed for a system that is more complex than just a machine that opens and closes,” Early said.
While there may be some more flexibility coming up, automation is certainly not 100 percent flexible.
“Generic automation certainly isn't a term used in the rubber industry. But where automation really helps is when the entire process is started from cradle to grave,” he said.
Training is important
Besides just having a conversation with customers, it must be understood that training and educational aspects will be needed when automation is introduced.
Early said Desma tries to educate the customer on what he will need to do on his end to support the system, and the company also encourages the customer to invest in training.
This training includes the customer's operators and technical staff, with much education being offered hands-on during customer visits to Desma to see the process demonstrated. The more customers invest in the training of staff, Early said, the better off the launch process is when the machines are put into production.
“We've had a strong increase in training over the last few years,” he said. “The thirst in the market to train people has increased, which we see as a good sign.”
The increased training means companies are investing in their employees.
One reason why training is important is because “you are also dealing with systems that are more complex,” Baines said. Previously, operators and technical staff may have been dealing with more systematic machinery, such as injection molding machines, which is kind of the same no matter what brand it is, he said.
“But they don't really know how to program a (programmable logic controller),” he said, so a company would have to look into how to fix issues as they arise.
“You are tasking your labor force to be at a higher level than you would otherwise. So it's not just the investment in terms of capital, but you're having to invest in ... labor, training or skills.”