Automation stepping in where workers aren’t

Cutting edge products are allowing companies to move workforce to more fulfilling roles

Having trouble finding workers who want to wrap plastic around pallets loaded with boxes all day? There’s automation for that.

Are you a California or Oregon company trying to navigate the dizzying complexities of low fuel and carbon requirements? There’s a service that does not shoulder the complexities of the laws but gets you the maximum credits.

Need to move thousands of pounds of goods, but can’t find a forklift driver? There’s a machine for that, too.

In fact, there is automation for more tasks than one can even imagine as manufacturers and warehouses face record labor shortages or seek to repurpose the workers they do have into more fulfilling roles.

Craig Zelasko, a product manager for Orion Stretch Wrappers, said he and his 14-year-old son were walking by a line of robots putting boxes into bigger boxes when his son asked what was happening there.

“I told him that’s what happens when people don’t come back to work,” Zelasko said.

A June 2021 U.S. Chamber of Commerce report on the worker shortage quantified some of the problems that industries are facing. They found that there were 8.1 million vacant job openings in the United States — a record high — in March 2021. And that is up by more than 600,000 from February. The manufacturing sector didn’t do as poorly as several other industries, such as professional and business services, education and health services, and government jobs. But manufacturers were relatively low on the worker availability ratio, with just 1.5 workers available for every open job, according to the Chamber of Commerce study.

Doug Fastuca, CEO of FRED Automation, said his company’s automated guided vehicles can move thousands of pounds of goods throughout a warehouse, eliminating the need for forklift drivers. The robot both addresses labor shortage issues and frees up existing employees for other tasks.

They offer two AGVs: FRED can support up to 2,500 pounds and Freddie up to 400 pounds.

The AGVs serve two basic markets, Fastuca said. “One is warehousing. Either in a manufacturer’s warehouse or a pure warehouse. That’s moving product from the dock to the production line. Or from the production line to shipping,” Fastuca said. “Within a manufacturing environment, FRED can be used within an assembly process moving the product in each step of the manufacturing process.”

The company supports industries that include automotive, agricultural equipment, and home landscaping equipment. Their warehousing clients are even more diverse, including E-commerce distribution, aerospace parts, glass manufacturing, and linen, to name just a few.

He said his clients are sharing stories about labor shortages “in a big way.” His message is simple: you have a tight labor market and FRED can provide a simple solution to move material.

“We’re not trying to automate the world. We’re trying to automate a simple movement of material,” he said.

Fastuca said FRED is not necessarily replacing workers, but redirecting them to more valuable and value-added activities than riding up and down an aisle. The cost of a FRED is $35,000 and a Freddie: $22,000, and the company target’s a 12-month payback for customers. But he has definitely heard success stories that far exceed that goal.

“Recently our customers have achieved four-month payback, a nine-month payback example, and a 12-month payback,” Fastuca said. “It’s because labor’s expensive and our products are not expensive. If you have more than one shift, obviously the payback is quicker because you don’t pay for FRED on the second shift. You’ve already paid for him.”

The AGVs operate on a magnetic tape navigation system. The tape is put on top of the floor or embedded where the vehicles are expected to move and FRED’s magnetic reader simply follows the tape.

At Alexandria, Minn.-based Orion, the company provides stretch wrapping and pallet unitizing machinery that can literally revolutionize the way the plastic film is applied to stories of boxes sitting atop of a pallet. Without automation, it is workers who take the film and go around and around and around the boxes with the wrap. Zelasko said the efficiency and accuracy of the job were dependent on how the worker felt that day and, frankly, how dizzy they got circling the boxes.

In a situation like beer distributors, which has been huge lately, the Orion wrapping equipment has been able to wrap upwards of 100 pounds an hour and 500 cases of beer a night. “It’s a very high speed,” Zelasko said.

Orion’s products generally come in two types: a turntable style, in which a pallet of boxes sits atop a turntable that spins as the wrap is applied. The other alternative is a machine with a carriage arm that moves around the stationary boxes.

“You don’t have to have that guy that just stands there and wraps pallets all day,” Zelasko said. “You can have him running the fork truck now and getting lots of pallets throughout the day.”

Automation can be a treasure for really any industry that warehouse or manufacturer that moves large amounts of product around in boxes, from the small family-owned facilities to Fortune 500 companies with household names. Orion serves industries such as brick and block companies, food and beverage distributors, agricultural suppliers, home products, cleaning supplies, and countless others.

And then there are the financial efficiencies the products provide. Whereas a human can only stretch film 100%, the pallet wrapper can stretch the film 260%, Zelasko said. And with the cost of the film up to three times what it was a year or so ago, that can provide huge savings for a company.

While the automation has been around for years, Orion has been deluged with requests from new customers who say they just don’t have the manpower this year to do the job, Zelasko said.

Sales for Orion’s flex machines have increased 42% this year and 12% for the automatic machines. He said the flex machines really appeal to the “mom-and-pop shops” because they are less expensive.

“Now you’ve got a reason to say, hey you can get two times as much film usage on something that’s tripled in price and your ROI, depending on how many loads you’re talking, could be months,” Zelasko said.

One company providing a nontraditional, but vital kind of support to industrial and commercial companies and municipalities is Durango, Colo.-based PineSpire. They may not provide the forklifts that move massive amounts of product, but they will help you find revenue streams to purchase electric forklifts, yard goats, and yard semis.

PineSpire Co-Founder Patrick Dawson said they specifically provide turnkey services to California companies navigating the Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) standards and Oregon firms required to comply with the Clean Fuels Program (CFP).

“It’s a way for them to gain efficiency by letting us take care of what we say is the process from registration to revenue,” Dawson said.

The California and Oregon programs are designed to decrease the carbon intensity of transportation fuels used there and provide an increasing range of low-carbon and renewable alternatives. That applies to everything from city plows to company forklifts.

Among the many layers of the programs are grants and incentives provided to those who meet the standards. Yet many materials-handling firms and other companies likely don’t have the time or staff to undertake what can amount to a full-time job just understanding the nuances of the laws, Dawson said.

PineSpire has three categories of clients: municipalities, agricultural and food processing plants, and commercial and industrial companies. One of the most important services PineSpire provides is helping clients manage the financial obligations and paybacks from participating in the programs.

For example, they help identify and apply for available grants that can be used to purchase electric vehicles and forklifts. PineSpire also provides monthly reports on how much energy a client is consuming as well as how much LCFS revenue they are creating.

“If you talk to a fleet manager today, they can tell you to the gallon how many gallons of diesel fuel they used in a month,” Dawson said. “But if you talk to a forklift operator … OK, how many kilowatt-hours did your forklift use in a month, they don’t have a clue. It’s really starting to see electricity as a fuel source.”

PineSpire also helps clients ensure they are taking full advantage of the incentives and credits that are available under the LCFS and CFP programs. “Every time they charge an electric forklift, they are creating those credits, whether they know it or not,” Dawson said.

PineSpire helps them register those credits with the state, complete the transaction in an online marketplace, and then gives the company back the majority of that revenue. A company, for example, could be earning between $2,000 and $5,000 per forklift per year,” Dawson said. “And that’s every year until 2030 in terms of revenue, just from charging their electric forklift.”

About the Author:

Lisa Curtis is a freelance writer based in Cedarburg, WI. She has nearly 30 years of experience working for local newspapers and magazines, including serving as managing editor of the Ozaukee News Graphic. She is also the author of the book “Images of America: Cedarburg.” To contact Lisa email editorial@MHNetwork.com

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