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Robots a fact of modern manufacturing life

When Staub Inc.’s employees leave for the day, the robots don’t stop. They work through the night, in the darkness. The robots pick up newly produced machined parts, to wash and then dry them, before setting the parts into bins to ship to customers.

If Anthony Staub, the president, pops into the Village of Hamburg plant at night, he looks for green lights glowing above the machines. “That means we’re successful,” he said. Ideally, the green lights glow all day, too.

Whether they are in a relatively small business like Staub or in massive plants like General Motors in the Town of Tonawanda and Lockport, robots are here to stay in manufacturing. They help companies keep labor costs down while producing parts consistently and in large numbers. Robots don’t need humans watching their every move. But the employees responsible for ensuring the robots perform properly must be technologically adept, another sign of the changing requirements of the modern-day plant worker.

Staub became interested in robots about 15 years ago, at trade shows. “I was mesmerized by them,” he said. But it was still a few more years before Staub found a suitable purpose for a robot at his business. Today, his 26-employee company uses four robots, in two facilities.

Staub Inc.’s main reason for using robots: labor savings. “We’re always pressured on price, and as it gets easier to deal with low-labor cost countries, China and others, our customers are saying, ‘Let’s go here, let’s go there, maybe we can get a better price,’ ” Staub said. “We have to react to that. Otherwise, we’re going to lose all our manufacturing here in the States.”

Along with price, Staub said he competes on quality and timeliness. Robots help him meet those standards.

Staub Inc.’s biggest customer is AirSep Corp., an Amherst-based maker of oxygen concentrators. Staub Inc. supplies parts for AirSep’s air compressors.

For Staub Inc., which generates about $8 million in annual sales, it’s not as simple as installing a robot and watching it go. The company creates a system around the robot, including safety equipment to protect workers, and integrates it with production machines. Staub estimates he has invested about $2 million in his company’s robots, when including the support system.

Staub Inc.’s robots have taken on an increasing number of the steps involved in preparing parts for shipment, said marketing manager Erik Bauerlein. “Who knows what the next step will be in labor savings?”

Staub said the robots almost never break down – the only interruptions are usually for reasons like maintenance.

Robots are also on the job in GM’s two vast plants in the region.

GM Tonawanda installed yellow “flying robots” – they actually glide on a beam above machines, but from the floor they appear to fly – and other robots as part of the automaker’s $825 million investment in the engine-making complex in recent years. Some of GM’s robots load and unload parts with their mechanical arms; others actually perform work on parts, said Patrick Capuson, area manager for machining operations in Plant 1. The parts are then sent elsewhere in the complex for assembly.

The Tonawanda complex as of late December had more than 1,700 employees and was on track to produce more than 610,000 engines in 2014. While robots and automation play a significant role in its manufacturing, GM Tonawanda strikes a balance between technology and people.

“The machining of the components is largely done in an automated manner,” said Steve Finch, the plant manager. “The assembly of all of those components into the final engine product is much, much more manual than even our last engine products here.”

Robots are helpful, Finch said, but they have limitations.

“If you buy a robot and put it on the line, the advantages are you get consistency,” Finch said. “It will always be there and it will do the job that it is programmed to do. The disadvantage is, you’ll never get any more than that. It can’t improve upon itself, it can’t get any better. People do. People come up with ideas, people come up with input, people give you much more insight into the business.”

GM’s machine operators interact little with the robots as they work, but its skilled trades workers, such as electricians and electrical controls engineers, have more contact with them. “They actually write the programs, they service the robots,” Capuson said.

The robots run 24 hours a day, five days a week, except for preventive maintenance, Capuson said.

GM’s Components Holdings plant in Lockport uses its robots for welding-related tasks. The Lockport plant makes components for a range of GM vehicles and had 1,666 employees as of late December.

GM Lockport’s robots are particularly helpful for picking up and moving heavy-duty radiators, said Pat Curtis, the plant manager.

“It doesn’t really impact head count and it’s just a good technology all the way around for safety and for quality,” said Michael Branch, shop chairman for UAW Local 686 Unit 1. “The learning curve’s fairly easy for our membership. We’ve got a fairly young membership ...”