Robotics help power the U.S. manufacturing sector these days, and a Charlotte-based robotics company has a piece of the action.
Transbotics Corp., which counts Fortune 500 companies among its clients, makes automatic guided vehicles, or AGVs, which a growing number of manufacturers use to perform repetitive or hazardous tasks.
2011 was a record year (for Transbotics), and I think thats indicative of the industry as a whole, said Executive Vice President Neville Croft. Moneys tight, but at the same time, people are looking at more efficient ways to spend their money.
The global robotics market grew by 96 percent in 2010 compared to 2009, and should continue to grow, according to the research firm TechNavio.
Growth in the industry represents a positive turnaround for companies such as Transbotics, which was a public company from 2000 to 2008. Though the industry has grown since the 90s, robotics took a hit in 2008 declining by more than 45 percent, said Rituparna Roy, a marketing manager at TechNavio.
For Transbotics, the cost of remaining public eventually became excessive, given the companys small size, Croft said. For the quarter ending May 31, 2008, the company reported a loss of $370,270.
Now, Transbotics is growing again, President Claude Imbleau said, which he believes is a good sign not only for robotics but also the domestic manufacturing sector. The robotics company also exports worldwide, to markets including Brazil, Korea, China, Germany, Australia, Mexico and Poland.
The company sells to a range of industries, including automotive, which makes up about 30 to 40 percent of its sales; food and beverage, which accounts for another 30 percent; as well as hospitals, aviation, aerospace and others. The AGVs sell for anywhere from $15,000 to more than $200,000 each, depending on their features, Croft said.
The robots look like white metal boxes, with the size and features depending on the clients needs. They might serve as forklifts, mini-conveyor belts or simply tuggers that pull loads. One kind of small AGV can drive underneath a wheeled cart, insert a pin into the bottom of the cart and drag the cart across a warehouse. Some of the robots follow a path laid out with magnetic tape, while others can triangulate their position through the placement of lasers.
Not only do robotics increase efficiency and productivity at a time when companies look to cut costs, Croft said, but they can replace the conveyor belt, which can often take up a lot of space and is cumbersome to circumnavigate.
Robots vs. humans?
But while robotics might cause some growth for the manufacturing industry, some worry about robots replacing workers, especially when the national unemployment rate remains more than 8 percent.
Its absolutely something thats happening, said Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (The manufacturing industry) employs fewer people every year, and that is purely a productivity story and largely an automation story. ... (Facilities) just dont need as many people to generate the same output, and thats a trajectory thats going to continue.
On the other hand, robotics could create new jobs, he said.
Robots are going to create new companies, new jobs and new opportunities for people, McAfee said. I dont want to paint robots as pure job killers.
Sarstedt, a German producer of health care equipment, recently added a new fully automated distribution center that did not replace any of the roughly 230 workers at its U.S. headquarters in Newton, Vice President Peter Rumswinkel said. The $14 million project was completed in May.
Due to the ability to increase volume and capacity, it is anticipated that production will expand further and jobs will be created, Rumswinkel said in an email.
Back at the Transbotics warehouse, Croft and other leaders are optimistic about the companys prospects. The appeal of the companys AGVs lies in being customizable. They pull, lift and carry loads as small as 6 pounds or as large as 80 tons and up.
And recharging their batteries? Thats no problem. The robots know when to recharge themselves.