As Hunsinger notes his interest in automation for Bonney Forge, the four begin a conversation about the general state of the forging industry. Jim Warren, President and CEO of FIA, highlights that they have been monitoring their member’s health as forging companies are struggling in the workforce due to lack of labor. Warren says, “One of the solutions we believe in is automating processes to increase throughput, increase quality and help beat back that lack of labor.” Under direction from the board, FIA started executing programs in 2018, but had trouble accessing forging facilities with automation due to the apprehensiveness of sharing processes with competitors. As a result, FIA exposed their program attendees to other manufacturing industries including metal fabricating and stamping. Despite the challenges, FIA successfully pulled off their first program.
Manufacturing in the U.S.
Mario Trizzino, Sales Engineer at Adaptec, starts the conversation by asking Warren for his insight on other countries and their level of automation compared to the United States. Warren responds with, “Newer developing manufacturing areas have an advantage of putting all new equipment in, and when they do that, they have automation in mind right from the start.” The U.S. has a great history in forging, leading to a lot of roadblocks preventing robotics and automation from replacing older equipment that forgers have had success with. Despite being behind in the global situation, Warren sees possibility through the FIA membership. Daily, the FIA is learning of companies that are installing automation. With integrators like Adaptec and LASCO staying busy in forging, Warren believes the U.S. has a great chance to catch up.
As the FIA becomes more involved with forging education and research, specifically ergonomics and people, the great cause in automation is inevitable. People are getting worn out and the injuries are increasing, precisely strains and sprains to the upper and lower extremities. Hopefully, the stigma that surrounds robotics in the workforce will begin to dissipate as robots are used to extend the workforce, not replace it. Ultimately, robots succeed in getting humans off those worse tasks – the dull, dirty, and dangerous – and put them on projects that require creativity and cognitive thinking.
“We have no choice. We have to look to automation or we will not be in existence. I think it is that simple.”
As a forger considering automation, and having attended FIA’s program, Hunsinger acknowledges that, “We have no choice. We have to look to automation or we will not be in existence. I think it is that simple.” He continues to discuss the aging workforce, stating that skilled forgers are not available anymore. Furthermore, students are not graduating from schools aspiring to be forgers, further creating a gap in the workforce for forging companies. Hunsinger adds that robotic automation is the easiest path to adapt and overcome the labor shortage as Bonney Forge considers automating their processes.
As a company with a deep history in the forging industry, Bonney Forge was established in the 1870s in Philadelphia. They started by working with shipyards, then went to fabricating and forging turnbuckles for covered wagons that were prominent in Pennsylvania at the time. Eventually, they got into forging and tool work, becoming an original founding member of FIA in 1913. Bonney Forge is privately owned by John Leone and family, giving Hunsinger the inspiration to make the commitment to automation for the company.
State of the Industry
Warren sets the tone for the state of the industry discussion, focusing on the U.S. government’s position on the state of supply chain and labor in forging. He notes that the last two presidents issued executive orders to study the overall supply chain, highlighting casting and forging as areas of study. Subsequently, the Department of Defense became concerned about both industry segments. Because of this, Warren states that he expects funds to come from the military as FIA has already seen some support to bolster workforce training through Forging University. FIA has also been approached by the army and another military unit, the Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment Unit – the front-facing part of the Department of Defense that analyzes how the military secures things – expressing their concern for supply chain. Government funds can be used for training, investing in community colleges, direct equipment, or technology. Ultimately, the state of the industry has reached lawmaker level as they throw forging a line of support.
In order to succeed in North America, and keep the national blueprint in mind, the lack of labor has to be addressed. How does robotic automation alleviate that? Adaptec’s Jim Morris takes on this subject, noting the effect automation can have on attracting younger workers. He says, “One thing we’ve observed in other industries is you put robots in a plant, and you know, they’re high-tech and exciting for the younger folks. We’ve seen the effect of that automation attracting younger workers because you can walk out on the floor and say, ‘you’re going to get to work with this type of equipment.’” For those who aren’t able to witness automation at work, visiting plants with robots in action can inspire younger generations to want to be a part of the industry.
“Adding a robot, you don’t lay people off – you move them over into a job where they use their brain more than their hands. Robots are force multipliers.”
Morris brings to light the inconsistency in education when it comes to manufacturing, specifically in high schools and community colleges. He states, “Unfortunately, they’ve had a roller coaster ride in terms of what they’re going to train people on,” as programs focus on trending subjects rather than general manufacturing education. For example, schools local to Morris developed programs for fiber optics until the trend faded and students were pushed into other areas that needed staffing. He makes a solid point – that nationally, students just need to understand basic manufacturing and forging will naturally be a part of that.
The roadmap to success starts at the high-school level, then up to community colleges, and eventually to four-year universities. Morris’ point of “trying to put that roadmap back together to attract younger people in the industry” is followed up by Warren’s statement that high-tech environments with impressive technology make it easier for some companies to hire. M.K. Morse, a saw manufacturing company, is an example of this. During a tour of their facility, Warren brought up the labor shortage to find that in a company with about 500 people, they only have seven job openings. The high-tech environment, full of impressive technology, Warren thinks has a lot to do with their hiring success. As they look to eliminate the hands-on, intensive process in their powder coating line, Warren asks an important question – where those people are going? The answer: “Oh, we have places for all the people.”
Following up Warren’s point, Morris argues against the stigma that adding robots lays people off stating, “Adding a robot anymore, you don’t lay people off – you move them over into a job where they use their brain more than their hands. Robots are force multipliers.” Hunsinger then brings the conversation back to education and the importance of getting those curriculums back into high school, community colleges, and even 6–12-month technical degree programs. By doing so, students are able to explore avenues that they did not know were there.
Training & Workforce Development
Morris highlights training opportunities that are available to companies who integrate robots into their processes. Adaptec’s unique training program allows instructors to travel to the end user to facilitate classes with training robots, unlike other programs that require travel to the training site. Operators are able to become familiar with the technology without having to be off site for a long period of time.
Warren adds to conversation by looping in military investments in workforce development, exemplifying the need to replicate Adaptec’s training method in schools to expose students to the manufacturing industry.
Continuing the defense conversation, Warren applauds the United States’ ability to equip Ukraine with weaponry. The key fact here is that forgers have been keeping busy in that space despite the consensus that we are not built as were in the 50s during WWII. Warren says, “The U.S. just is not that industrial might anymore and our top leaders are concerned.” This is an important time for forging to step up as we’re a little behind on the world stage of automation. With the help of integrators like Adaptec, and companies such as Bonney Forge, everyone is doing their part to push the forging industry forward.
Forging University, an online, web-based training center with over 100 interactive courses presented by the FIA, makes it easy for people to see the first steps of automation in case they can’t attend workshops.
Morris reflects on his experience at the very first show in Chicago, and how four years later, he’s back again with a much bigger crowd. During his workshops, Morris asks his attendees if they are using robots currently. The first time, not too many hands went up. This time, about 40% of those attending raised their hands. He adds, “Robots and automation are definitely starting to become entrenched in the industry.” Even the people that haven’t started using automation are going to be soon. As Morris says, “This stuff just works.”
Trizzino shares his insight on robotic integrators, specifically the knowledge and expertise is takes to break into the forging industry. Due to the uniqueness of processes, some integrators haven’t had the ability to break into the sphere of forging yet.
Many forging processes are intimidating by nature as they usually include dangerously hot parts. Trizzino taps into his engineering background and says, “As an engineer, how do you design something that isn’t going to burn up?” He reflects on his career as a young engineer right out of school, working under Morris to learn the industry. He was able to do some forging design, learning from someone who had the experience and knowledge to coach him through it.
Working for integrators such as Adaptec and LASCO, for example, the younger generation has a chance to learn tips and tricks from those familiar with the industry. Once an integrator understands the industry, they can learn customer’s processes to figure out how to automate handling hot parts. Trizzino continues with a great point – although the forging industry is unafraid of forging’s dangerous processes, most are still intimidated by adding robots to automate those processes. Hunsinger acknowledges having that open dialogue between the integrator and customer is key to achieving the customer’s goal. Whether the issue is with quality, production, or manning, the important thing is having cohesion with individual expertise to come up with a solution. He says, “I don’t expect you to know my product line as well as I do, but I’m looking for your expertise on automation, material handling, and I’m hoping to provide my expertise on forging and we have that cohesion.” Trizzino comments on the training aspect and Adaptec’s inclusion of training credits in a sale to ensure the customer is comfortable with the robot. Once the customer understands the technology, an everlasting synergy between the integrator and customer begins as both continuously look for ways to improve processes.
Morris taps into his years of experience working with customers integrating their first robot. He says, “One of the things I’ve just enjoyed immensely is you put the first robot in and it goes through its shakedown and it’s working. Then, your phone rings six months later with ‘you know we were thinking about doing another one.’” After traveling back to the customer site, both were able to find more potential robotic applications. Morris refers to it as “lily pads going across the pond.” Having seen automation expand throughout numerous plants, he emphasizes that it “makes you feel good when what you do is helping people.”
Warren continues the conversation, bringing up the first plant tours FIA did back in 2018. Comparing the recent ones, he mentions the increase in automation the next time around. The operators at these plants were content with being able to maintain their own processes and programming. As a result, some FIA members “caught the fever,” witnessing the capacity that can be added to forging processes with automation. FIA gives people the opportunity to see the robots, believe in the automation, and gain confidence to make the next step and take the risk to automate. Turning to Hunsinger, Warren says, “I hope you believe it now. I hope you’re more confident to make this step and to give it a try.” Warren ends with highlighting that although the forging industry is small, they are important to the country for the war effort, planes, and energy – “our country needs us.”