If you look up at the night sky and happen upon some little lights on the move, it might be a shooting star. Likely it is not a UFO. The better bet, of course, is that the lights belong to an airplane. And the odds are very high they come from Astronics Luminescent Systems Inc (LSI).
These ingeniously designed, extra-durable LED exterior lights are made at Astronics LSI’s flagship factory in East Aurora, N.Y., a suburb of Buffalo. The facility, utterly nondescript from the outside, but a sprawling, bustling workshop inside, employs 300 mostly blue-collar workers.
With its motto of “innovation at 30,000 feet,” Astronics LSI is well-known in the industry for aircraft lighting. It’s also a major supplier of cockpit instrument panels. The company’s hundreds of products are subjected to rigorous quality-control measures as dictated by the Federal Aviation Administration. Cockpit lights need to be bright, but not too bright. And they can’t ever suddenly go out.
Demand is usually sky-high with new jet fleets being rolled out regularly. Astronics products are custom-crafted. They are tested and re-tested. Nothing is rushed.
Still, the company is eager to ramp up production. And it would, too. If only it could hire more people.
“It’s been a continual challenge for us,” Astronics CFO David Burney said. “We can’t find enough qualified workers.”
The company needs machinists and engineers and assemblers — careful and not easily distracted people who like working with their hands.
Astronics is not alone.
The National Association of Manufacturers has sounded an alarm, estimating some 2.4 million manufacturing jobs could go unfilled by 2028 due to labor shortages.
Somewhere along the line, over the past several generations, high school shop courses fell out of favor as communities steered their youths toward college degrees tied to white-collar work. Now new forces are reshaping the labor market.
Automation, as well as AI technology that takes robotics closer to sci-fi levels, has and will continue to reconfigure work as humans have known it. At risk, it seems, are people who weld, fabricate, mill, join, lathe, wire, cut, hoist, assemble, package and load stuff.
“AI could affect work in virtually every occupational group,” said the Brookings Institute in a new report. And while manufacturing and production workers will be among the most affected, white-collar workers are seen as equally vulnerable.
Most big companies, such as those in the automotive industry, already have become mostly automated; smaller companies, not so much.
Robotic arms have become nimbler, safer and less expensive. It has never made more sense for so-called “SMEs” (small and medium-sized enterprises) to automate.
Advanced manufacturing has a chance to transform smaller manufacturers like Astronics, and hundreds of others like them in the Western New York region.
Written off by some as a rust-belt relic, Buffalo tried to reinvent itself during the 1980s and ‘90s as more of a white-collar hub. But its blue-collar roots run deep, going back to the early part of the 19th century.
The first waves of Irish immigrants, many of whom helped build the Erie Canal, found work unloading grain shipments from eastbound lake freighters hauling barley, wheat and rye across Lake Michigan, by way of the Detroit River, to Buffalo. In the latter part of the 19th century, that task was automated. Grain elevators (buckets fastened to steam-powered conveyor belts) may have displaced some Irishmen (who became “scoopers,” going down into hulls to shovel the corner piles that the buckets couldn’t snag) but, as more Irish (and German and Polish and Jewish and Italian and black Southerners) poured into Buffalo, they found abundant employment in other industries. Bethlehem Steel and Curtiss-Wright and GM and Ford plants at one time all ranked among the most productive manufacturing sites on the planet.
By the 1970s, most of the large manufacturers were gone, leaving behind empty, too-massive-to-knock-down facilities, most of which still stand today like “the ruins of a manufacturing empire,” as one local business leader has said.
In 2014, New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo, through his Buffalo Billion initiative, opened Buffalo Manufacturing Works. It runs an ambitious nonprofit program to help revitalize the area’s manufacturing base through technology, including robotics and additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing.
Buffalo Manufacturing Works (and don’t ever call them “BMW,” if only because the German multinational has that trademarked) was born of a vision by state and local leaders to reinvigorate the city’s manufacturing base. Because Buffalo had few, if any, automation consultants and no real robotics industry to speak of, the state partnered with Columbus, Ohio-based technology innovator EWI.
For more than three decades, EWI has been providing advanced manufacturing support to companies across the rust belt and throughout the country. Expanding on what EWI has done in Ohio, Buffalo Manufacturing Works serves as a central resource for Western New York manufacturers as they tip-toe toward innovation, including automation.
The Buffalo area is still home to more than a dozen large manufacturers, including Moog, Sumitomo Rubber, Fisher-Price/Mattel and Dresser-Rand. Two GM plants still make engines here. And there is a Ford stamping plant.
Tesla’s controversial factory in South Buffalo, originally SolarCity, employs about 300 people making energy-storage products for electric cars. Panasonic Corp., which makes solar panels, has about 400 employees. Whether the Tesla-Panasonic partnership creates hundreds of more jobs remains to be seen. (From the amount of subsidies provided, New York State believes it will.)
Despite the dramatic reduction of large manufacturers over the decades, there are roughly 1,600 small- and medium-sized factories based in Western New York (a region also often dubbed Buffalo/Niagara) still making stuff — aircraft lights and radio antennas and countless other items. Mostly we are talking about small parts and components of other products. To stay competitive, these small companies, many of them run like family businesses, will need to invest in the future.
“Only about 20% of the small factories in the Buffalo area have some form of automation,” said Mike Garman, senior engineer-automation, Buffalo Manufacturing Works. “The rest are just starting out down this road. A lot of these companies know they need to automate, but putting in a robotic arm? That’s overwhelming to them — they don’t know where to begin.”
If Buffalo is ever to regain past manufacturing glory, the companies calling it home might have no choice but to automate.
“We project more than 20,000 advanced manufacturing job openings in Western New York in the next 10 years,” said Stephen Tucker, president and CEO of the Northland Workforce Training Center, another key player in the region’s advanced-manufacturing initiative. The openings owe to an aging workforce and pending retirements, Tucker added.
“[The training center] is working to prepare local residents with 21st century technical skills necessary to fill those jobs,” he said.
About a 15-minute drive north from Astronics’ East Aurora factory is one of Buffalo’s best-known suburbs, Orchard Park, home of the NFL’s Bills.
In a bland corporate complex, not that much more than a Josh Allen deep ball away from New Era Field, is a company called STI-CO. It makes mobile radio-antenna systems. STI-CO’s customers include law enforcement agencies and the military, which need customized covert equipment. The U.S. Department of Defense uses the company’s products to outfit low-profile overseas operations and responses to natural disasters.
Additionally, STI-CO engineers antenna systems for freight and passenger railroads that communicate critical Positive Train Control data such as how fast a train is moving and whether it needs to be remotely controlled to slow down.
“We recognize that we need to automate and have allocated the resources to do it,” said CEO Kyle Swiat, whose late father, Robert Kaiser, a machinist, founded the company in 1967. “But we are involving all of our people in the conversation.”
They’ve added CNC machines and a 3-D printer to speed up processes.
“Our employees are excited about the technologies,” she said. “They want to see the company invest in future growth.”
Today, STI-CO produces hundreds of products and is keen to stay competitive in a global market. That means exploring alternatives, including, eventually, robotics.
She also confirmed the challenge of finding qualified, reliable workers and sees automation as inevitable and a win for her 45 employees.
“This is a family,” she said. “Even if we could automate the whole operation, we wouldn’t ever do that because we believe that people still make the difference.”
One of the worst jobs at the STI-CO plant had been the dreaded taping-and-labeling detail. Each set of antennas comes with groups of color-coded wires (like when you hook up a stereo). STI-CO’s process for packaging and marking the wires not only was tedious but woefully inefficient; i.e., done in an outdated manner the way they’ve always done it — by hand.
So in something of a baby step into the future, STI-CO, about 10 months ago, invested in a computer-enabled system. While not a robot, the creatively engineered setup was a modern machine that took on the bundling-and-labeling tasks previously done by humans, freeing up those workers to focus more on quality control.
”When a company looks to automate, the first project should be an easy win,” Garman said.
Simply automating for the sake of automating, without fully thinking it through, creates more headaches, not less, he warns; A robot deployed without a clear problem to solve is just “a hammer in search of nail,” Garman said. “We always say, ‘Start slow, start small and keep it simple,’ and then move from there to something more ambitious.”
As for its first foray into actual robots, STI-CO is still coming up the curve with help from Garman and the team at Buffalo Manufacturing Works, as well as from a host of robotics industry people: advisory professionals; robotic-arm distributors; systems integrators and consultants. These firms form a village of advanced manufacturing enablers supporting smaller factories in their efforts to automate more activities.