Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association

The Robotics Revolution

Zahner_103The first time Kansas City-based A. Zahner Company used robotics on one of its architectural metal work projects came nearly 10 years ago. The design of a high-end condominium building in New York included 300 stainless steel panels that measured two feet deep by four feet tall by 16 feet long.

Each panel required multiple curvilinear welds covering its entire length, which spurred Zahner to invest in a welding “robot” to assist in carrying out the task.

“If you can imagine a human being doing that, over 16 feet you’re going to get the welder hesitating in different spots, maybe over-welding in one area and under-welding in another area, which would result in an unacceptable level of quality” says Tom Zahner, the company’s chief operating officer.

Zahner_036“For a robot, that’s pretty simple: The welding expert simply programs the robot to follow a specific path at a specific speed and it completes the weld, again and again and again. Mind you, this only works if you have the experienced welder programming and monitoring the weld throughout the process.”

Zahner has also used a robot to fold thousands of small tabs on a project at Cornell University and to apply sealant in a complex pattern on a panel system at Hudson Yards in New York.

Robots are taking on a growing share of work in everything from back-office processing and manufacturing to order fulfillment. Last year saw records set in North America for both orders and sales of robots, according to data from the Association for Advancing Automation, a coalition of automation and robotics industry organizations.

Sheet metal and HVAC contracting work is no exception to the trend, and companies in this sector are still learning about the best ways to utilize automation and robotics in their day-to-day operations.

“Robots” Versus “Cobots”

Zahner_201Technologists are quick to draw distinctions between automation and robotics.

Generally speaking, automation denotes the use of automatic systems to produce and deliver goods and services. Sheet metal contractors have relied for decades on automated technologies and processes, such as automated laser cutting.

Think of robotics as a more specific type of automation. In the context of construction, robotics refers to utilizing programmable devices with the ability to replicate human hand actions, enabling the robots to manipulate tools on a very consistent basis.

Unlike automation, however, robotics is only now beginning to gain ground in the industry. For instance, the A. Zahner Company has used the same robot on three projects in the last 10 years – with several upgrades to the software application managing it.

“We’re definitely only taking baby steps with robotics,” says Tom Zahner.

An important subset of the robotics world is the so-called cobot. Whereas most robots do their work autonomously, cobots work collaboratively with humans to accomplish tasks. With cobots, “the robot might add physical power or precision, but the human would still have control” of the machine, according to Neil Bentley, co-founder of ActiveOps, a global operations management firm.

Benefits: Efficiency, Consistency, and Quality

Welding is just one example of robotics in action in construction. DMI Companies, an HVAC manufacturer based in Pittsburgh, uses robots at subsidiaries Ductmate Industries (a SMACNA Associate Member) and GreenSeam Industries for assembly-line-type tasks, including mixing, sealing, and storing materials and products. DMI’s robots also carry out “pick-and-place” activities, such as moving boxes and materials, as well as separating and sorting laser-cut metal pieces.

Zahner_226Tom Zahner says the universe of applications for robotics in sheet metal contracting is growing. His company employed an intern with a robotics background, Burçin Nalinci, a computational designer with a master’s in architectural technologies, this year to explore using robots to apply finishes to metal and to position parts at odd orientations so that they can be welded together by a welding expert.

Zahner has two robots, one of which is a re-purposed auto plant welding unit that they modified with various grips to hold material in position for a human to do the actual welding. They are working a test bed stainless-steel project to try out welding techniques.

“We’ve had great success in research and development,” says Tom Zahner. “We think there’s a lot of opportunity in the part-positioning concept. In a lean manufacturing world, movement is waste, and the time it takes to get two parts into position is considered a wasted resource. The quicker a robot can get things organized in the right position, the better.”

Moreover, Raymond Yeager, the president and CEO of DMI Companies, notes that engineers are already working to enhance the safety of working in close quarters with robots, which would further expand the opportunity set for robots within the jobsite.

When it comes to the bottom-line impact of robotics for sheet metal and HVAC contractors, the gains can be difficult to quantify in terms of dollars. Based on return-on-investment analyses, Yeager says he is confident that DMI Companies’ robots and automation technologies pay for themselves. He notes, for example, that robots are improving the efficiency of the companies’ production lines, cutting down on bottlenecks.

Importantly, those in the industry with experience using robotics cite the quality of work and the consistency of the finished products as chief benefits. That means less work on the back end to correct mistakes made during construction and production processes.

“We’ve mitigated, or removed, certain risks that we usually expect to happen” on a construction project, says Tom Zahner.

The Learning Curve

Of course, the learning curve for implementing robotics in companies’ operations presents one potential obstacle for sheet metal and HVAC contractors. That means planning ahead, according to Tom Zahner.

“If you have the right people, and they’re engaged, it’s really not that hard” to start using robotics in construction, Zahner says. “It has not been a challenge in our minds, but we went in with our eyes wide open. We had the right people in place at an early enough stage that it was more of a plan, not a reaction.”

Zahner_044In addition to the capital expenditures required to purchase robots (or cobots), contractors have to be willing to invest in training their workforce to operate the new technology. “You need more technical specialists who have experience in how to keep this type of technology running,” Yeager says.

Fortunately, in light of the ubiquity of robotics across the manufacturing sector, it is becoming easier to find employees with the right experience to come into construction, according to Tom Zahner. He can envision a day in which his company starts to filter out the applications of prospective employees who lack experience using robotics. “It is becoming more commonplace for your typical engineer to have some education in robotics,” he says.

A Blended Workforce: Humans and Robots

All of the factors involved in using robotics in sheet metal and HVAC contracting ultimately point to changing dynamics within the industry’s workforce. For example, Yeager says he would encourage any construction training program to ensure that they’re keeping up with the evolving requirements of their jobs.

“Robots do not necessarily reduce the workforce,” Yeager says. “They change the workforce.”

Tom Zahner notes that his company’s experiences don’t lead him to believe that broader applications of robotics will result in workforce reductions. Instead, he says, cobots are doing tasks that enhance the ability of the human workers to accomplish their work to the level of quality required within a specified timeframe.“ In the world of custom architectural sheet metal manufacturing, a robot is more of an assistant to the process,” he says.

Bentley takes a wholistic view of the forthcoming changes in the workplace. He encourages managers and executives to think of humans and robots, particularly cobots, as co-workers. That idea that has wide-ranging implications for companies, involving everything from their organizational cultures to the types of work that their employees do.

“We have to conclude that when technology changes, such as we are seeing now with robots, then we have to think about changes to the whole system,” Bentley says. “We need to think about management operating systems that allow for this blended workforce.”

Robot automatically bending sheet metal »