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Robotics technology transforms local manufacturing industry
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A worker touches up the paint on a chassis March 2, 2018, after it passed through automated powder coat paint booths at the Kubota RTV manufacturing facility in Lula. - photo by David Barnes

You can thank people and robots for that aromatic bread smell coming out of King’s Hawaiian in Oakwood.

“Half of our operation is very manual, so it’s people doing a lot of the movement of the product,” plant manager Rob Hathy said to a group of visitors in February. “But the other half is automated, (including) our mixing, our dough balling, our oven and some of our packaging.

“That’s the path that we’re going. That’s the path that manufacturing is going.”

Many area manufacturers are using robotics to push business along, and that seems to be a trend that won’t reverse.

“This is going to be continuing ... where you’ve got a process that’s repeated over and over again,” said Tim Evans, the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of economic development. “If you can program a robot to do these same tasks over and over again, you can reduce injury and workforce mental fatigue. Instead of having someone bending, folding and taping boxes, you can get automation to do that.”

It often means fewer employees, but companies will still need “talent to manage the automation, which is a higher skill level, and it pays more,” Evans said.

Automation certainly played a role when Kubota moved in spring 2017 to its 502,000-square-foot utility vehicle manufacturing facility on 180 acres in the Gateway Industrial Centre.

“The new factory is similar to our other factories,” said Phil Sutton, Kubota chief administrative officer. “Across all our areas, we’re trying to rely on robotics for the repetitive (jobs).”

“We still have to do a fair amount of hand welding, and the welders learn the technology to program the robots. So, they obviously have to understand welding first.”

For workers, it does represent an upward career climb.

“The same can be said for a lot of our maintenance people,” Sutton said. “A lot of the systems are controlled by programmable (devices). A lot more are learning that technology.”

“I wouldn’t say we’re replacing people,” he said. “But we’re requiring learning of new skills.”

Other companies are heavily involved in newer technologies.

Oklahoma-based M-D Building Products’ $2.5 million expansion of its Tower Sealants plant at 2095 Memorial Park Road in Gainesville included some of the latest mixing and packaging technology “to deliver consistent ... products with air-free filling that increases job productivity and efficiencies to the professional painter,” according to Tower Sealants.

The company showed off the improvements in a September ribbon-cutting ceremony and tours of the new equipment and production area.

“We are proud to continue to invest in our Gainesville-Hall County location and our employees to keep up with the sales growth we have experienced,” M-D President Loren Plotkin said at the time.

For the company, the investment was more than needed.

“New construction is back,” said Dale Tomazin, Tower’s executive vice president and general manager. “You see a lot of stuff going on in the commercial market, and it’s a good economy in the repaint industry.”

And in Tower’s case, more workers — not fewer — was the result. The company added 20 jobs, bringing employment up to 50. 

Automation is also finding its way into the poultry industry, which has relied heavily on human hands.

“There are machines that will portion chicken breasts based on an image, to get the most efficient cut of nuggets out of it,” Georgia Poultry Federation President Mike Giles said. “One of the big future trends is taking data that’s been collected or collecting new data to influence your production system and the machines that are being used.

“Whether you call that artificial intelligence or robots, that’s the trend that ... will be happening in the next decade or two.”

It will still be something of a challenge for the industry.

“A widget is going to be the same exact size each time,” Giles said. “Each one of the chickens is going to be a little different.”

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