During the past decade, influencers and companies have bet big on the idea that autonomous robots will replace most workers on the manufacturing line. In the marine industry, experts say, those bets should be hedged for a while.
“I think it’s all part of bringing the study of efficient manufacturing and process engineering into the boatbuilding industry,” says Scott Berry, director of engineering standards at the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “Robotics will and have their place, but so do so many other processes and material advances. Boat construction remains a craftsman business, and I don’t see that going away anytime soon.”
Berry’s thinking is in line with some of the world’s loudest voices on the subject. While tech billionaire Elon Musk told the National Governors Association in 2017 that “robots will be able to do everything better than us,” just a year later, he said excessive automation at his Tesla company had been a mistake. “Humans are underrated,” he tweeted.
Boeing has had a similar change of thinking in the aircraft industry. It invested in a large-scale, automated 777 fuselage assembly line called the Fuselage Automated Upright Build that, after six years and millions of dollars, had to be scrapped. In 2019, Boeing brought back skilled tradespeople to do the work correctly.
Bill Yeargin, president and CEO of Correct Craft, says the marine industry is in a different place than those companies, with robotics still in its infancy. “We are just getting started,” he says. “As computational power increases, it will reduce costs and make robotics more accessible to our industry. Up to this point, the small volume our industry builds combined with a varied model mix at most manufacturers has made robotics expensive, but that will change.”
Robotics is expensive because the robots need to become increasingly complex to do the types of manufacturing work that futurists say is possible. That’s why automated manufacturing processes today serve mostly as specialized tools for craftspeople to use, rather than as worker replacements.
One example of this usage is at KVH, which manufactures TracVision and TracPhone HTS antennas in a 75,000-square-foot facility in Middletown, R.I. “We use a coordinate measuring machine to measure complex mechanical parts before releasing them to the production floor,” says Elizabeth Jackson, chief marketing officer and senior vice president of strategy at KVH.
The machine, once programmed, automatically moves and touches the parts to locate key features and record measurement data. The machine is accurate to ten-thousandths of an inch and generates a report showing which measurements are in or out of required tolerance.
“The parabolic reflectors are parts we measure this way,” Jackson says. “The machine takes several hundred points on the reflector surface and calculates the standard deviation of the errors.”
Automation also helps KVH to calibrate staffing needs. “We do not use robots to produce the marine antennas, but in terms of automation, last year we developed a continuous flow manufacturing line for the 60 cm TracPhone V7-HTS, our most popular antenna system for providing Internet access at sea,” Jackson says, explaining that the system indicates the need for more operators to avoid sluggish production, and makes the work more ergonomically advanced. Each station along the line is work-balanced to keep a smooth pacing of the line. “It has been so successful we are looking to add the continuous flow and ergonomic improvements to the manufacturing line for other products.”
KVH also recently automated a test that measures transmission power of the antenna signal. “When field service performed this operation in the field, it took about an hour, so this was a real time-saver,” Jackson says, adding that automating the test also eliminated data-entry errors.
Other boatbuilders are automating tasks such as gelcoat application, hole cutting and trimming, and systems connectivity, Berry says. Repetitive operations that require minimal variation are ripe for automation that saves money.
Additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, is one such type of automation that made the news in October 2019, when the University of Maine 3-D-printed a 25-foot boat. The technology isn’t ready to take over factory floors, but “cross-linked construction of parts is already an industry standard,” Berry says. At Correct Craft, for instance, 3-D printing is already being used and is expected to increase as costs go down, Yeargin says.
And then there is artificial intelligence, which some futurists say may help automated systems realize their potential at affordable price points.
“When you combine robots with artificial intelligence is when robots really start to impact human jobs, but on a large scale that is many years away,” Yeargin says. “Robots are clearly a big game changer, but our industry’s low volumes and range of model mix will make them hard to justify until costs come down.”
This article was originally published in the September 2020 issue.