Few manufacturers are adequately resourced to stay on top of the rapidly changing factory technology landscape. Between dozens of trade shows, Silicon Valley start-ups, and a dizzying array of new buzzwords, most traditional manufacturers are making minimal progress in modernizing their operations. The “Factory of the Future” remains a far-off dream.
Eckhart, a Michigan-based automation company with locations throughout the U.S., seeks to change that by leveraging their track record to help customers develop tailored Factory of the Future roadmaps.
Historically, Eckhart received specific and detailed scopes of work from their customers on what equipment to build and how it should function. That’s all changed. The engineering staff at most OEMs is now considerably smaller and less experienced than in the past, resulting in a greater reliance on suppliers, contractors, and integrators like Eckhart. Eckhart views this industry shift as an opportunity. “We’re finding that a lot of our customers want to partner much earlier upstream in their technology selection and capital planning processes and collaborate on a project plan to increase automation and modernize the operation,” said Daniel Burseth, Vice President at Eckhart and an MIT-trained engineer.
Eckhart has a broad and deep capability by way of over 400 engineering and manufacturing professionals and a customer list that’s full of household names. Their suite of solutions includes autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), robotic cells, 3D printing/additive manufacturing, assembly automation, and advanced simulations. Eckhart is not exclusive to any one component or robot brand and so recommendations can be objective for a specific customer and a specific plant.
Each Factory of the Future engagement has unique objectives, duration, and deliverables based on input from the customer. At a high level, an engagement begins with an onsite meeting with client stakeholders and an in-depth evaluation of the current state processes and facility. Eckhart typically spends between three and ten days on-site. “We really embed in the operation. We learn everything we can with our team of engineers and then from our engineering offices in Chicago we model, in a simulation environment, a better approach,” explained Burseth. The simulation provides something compelling to discuss. The next step is formalizing materials surrounding the execution plan, cost, and ROI associated with migrating to the future state. The customer uses these materials to generate buy-in from their senior leadership.
Eckhart’s Factory of the Future consulting is one of the fastest growing areas of their business. They prefer a third party simulation software called FlexSim, but capability exists for all of the major factory simulation packages.
By displaying the entire alternative factory in a virtual framework, Eckhart is able to clearly show its customers where the operators and equipment will be positioned, how materials will be moved from point A to point B, and how the product will progress through the manufacturing steps. The ultimate goal of the simulation is to align all the stakeholders involved in large factory decisions and eliminate as much risk as possible. “Large factory projects are all about risk management. Discussion and iterations to a simulation allow all parties to establish clarity before cutting steel and tearing up concrete,” explained Burseth. The rigor of the engagement translates to meaningfully faster, lower total cost, and smoother execution outcomes for both Eckhart and the customer.
“Coming up with a factory master plan is often a capability that’s in short supply and we don’t run from companies that have those needs,” said Burseth. “We’re very interested in working through incomplete, missing, or vague definition to figure out a factory strategy that’s optimal and flexible for the long term.”
The shrinking field of talented engineers impacts Eckhart in a lot of ways. In an effort to reverse the trend, they are promoting the fields of engineering and manufacturing to students through participation in FIRST Robotics Competition. A national organization in which student teams design, build, and compete robotic systems, FIRST Robotics has been incorporated into thousands of schools throughout the United States.
“We’re working with different high schools in our area that have FIRST Robotics teams by donating materials and time to help with competition preparation,” said Burseth. “It’s a remarkable organization and it’s boosting interest and participation in engineering.” Through these collaborations, Eckhart aims to promote the profession of automation engineering to a new generation and ultimately contribute to the long-term economic health of the communities.
The shrinking participation in engineering that FIRST Robotics seeks to curb can also be seen in economic data, with unemployment rates in the United States continually pushing to historic lows. This drives an increase in wages and ultimately makes investment in automation more attractive. Eckhart has job openings throughout the company and is constantly looking to augment their engineering and skilled trade ranks.
For their own recruiting of mechanical, electrical, and robotics engineers, the company touts the opportunity to work on projects in multiple industries. Junior engineers may be working on a process for a medical device customer one week and an aerospace customer the next. This variety of work is enticing considering that most integrators have specific and niche focus areas. “In 2019 we had 350 unique customers, and so there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity to work on new things and become a well-rounded engineer,” said Burseth.
Learn more at eckhartusa.com.