The topic of automation might be seen as controversial to some people, so who better to ask about it than someone with a front-row seat?
Stephen Maund, President and CEO of Demco Automation in Quakertown, makes the automated machines that manufacturing companies across the country and around the world use to make their own products.
Demco develops custom, automated manufacturing systems for clients in a variety of industries including automotive, electronics, defense, industrial, and life sciences (medical devices, biotech, and pharmaceutical). The systems include robotics, motion control, vision systems, and materials handling. It takes anywhere from 14 to 26 weeks to turnaround a typical custom order.
Starting out at Bridgeworks
Demco graduated from the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center business incubation program almost in 1997, which is around the time it started to provide custom turnkey automated systems, which later evolved into the proprietary Demco Wedge Base Machine Chassis and patented its technology.
This platform is a key element to Demco’s business today due to its flexible design, ability to be customized for clients, and reused for many years, thereby significantly reducing obsolescence that manufacturers see with competitors’ systems. “We build a customized system on a flexible platform which reduces obsolescence of machinery,” said Maund.
Company expansion due to demand
In March 2017 Demco moved from its existing 20,000 sq. ft. manufacturing facility in Quakertown to a larger 35,000 sq. ft. facility also in Quakertown to keep up with client demand for its systems. “We’ve been bringing on new customers each year so we just had to expand,” Maund said. He attributes that growth to the quality of the products he makes and his long-term relationships with his clients.
“There is a growing need for automation in modern manufacturing today. The machines are getting more complex with the types of processes that they can handle compared to what they could do 10 to 20 years ago.”
Training the next generation of technicians
Demco’s relationship with Lehigh Career and Technical Institute allows him to funnel new technicians and machinists right into his company. He participates in a co-op program that allows the students to get hands-on training for half the day in his shop and the other half the day taking classes at school. And the best part for the students is that the on-the-job training is paid.
“We’re in constant need of machine builders, mechanical technicians, service technicians, electrical engineers and mechanical engineers,” Maund explained. “They are all needed to keep the machines maintained and running, and to minimize downtime when they do break down by knowing how to troubleshoot the problem, fix it, and get them up and running again.”
Maund encourages more manufacturers to offer on-the-job training for workers with a general technical knowledge or aptitude who don’t yet have the niche skill set that is required for the job. He also supports companies sending employees for additional training in mechatronics at local vocational-technical schools and community colleges.
Using automation to reshore American companies
“Thanks to certain types of automation, such as robotics, starting to come down in price, American manufacturers are slowly starting to realize that they can make their products here instead of abroad,” Maund explained.
“When companies factor in shipping costs, import taxes, customs, and time to transport goods by ship (typically 12 weeks or more), they can save money and still make a good profit by making the same product here at home. Plus, if the primary customer base for your product is here, then making your products here allows you to react more quickly to industry changes and event to tailor your product regionally to meet customer demand. More affordable automation systems will play a role in the gradual reshoring of American manufacturing companies.”
The future of automation in the U.S.
He says that workers and manufacturers alike shouldn’t fear automation. “Automation is necessary today in order to stay competitive both domestically and internationally,” Maund said. “As a company’s needs change and automation is brought in, the roles of the employees will change. They will need to be reallocated or redeployed so that the team can be used in different ways. That means retraining for some, and additional skills training for others.”
“Another way to look at it is this – companies will go out of business if they don’t automate in order to stay competitive,” Maund emphasized. “And that would lead to the closing or sale of the company and potentially to unemployment for all involved, and no one wants that. So, better to innovate now and adapt along with it versus the alternative!”