Manufacturing has had one wild year and, in the wake of COVID-19, many industry experts, boardroom executives, and men and women on the production floor are “shopping” their theories for 2021 manufacturing trends.

Theories for what 2021 will hold run the gamut, but there is plenty of crossover shared among contributing voices. Here are some of the most often mentioned subjects we are sure will emerge as the most impactful 2021 manufacturing trends.

The Reshoring of Manufacturing

When the mechanisms of manufacturing all but ground to a halt in Q1 of 2020, it became vividly apparent just how dependent nations were on the capacity and capabilities of a select few manufacturing powerhouses. A year on and COVID-scarcity has driven the prices of raw materials up 100-200% when compared with the same period last year.

In the wake of this glut, more than one fifth of US manufacturers surveyed by BDO are committed to the reshoring of operations as a top priority in 2021.

While both the current and previous administration are pushing for consumers to “Buy American”, the same sentiment is ringing loud and clear through the EU, Japan, South Korea, and many other leading nations.

The world bought in to cheap and abundant labor out of China for decades, which left supply chains around the world bottlenecked and vulnerable. Today, diversification of the supply chain is widely regarded by manufacturers as a must-have and countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Mexico are raising their hands to offer the capacity and talent to meet the needs of more local-focused supply chains.

Addressing The Education And Skills Gaps In Manufacturing

With decades of reliance on external manufacturing capacity, US-based manufacturers have seen an ever-increasing skills gap needed for their operations at home.

A tremendous contributing factor is the perception of manufacturing as a Triple-D sector. That is, dirty, dangerous, and dull. Whether on the shop floor or at the engineering desk, manufacturers are struggling to fill a gap in skilled jobs that Deloitte expects to reach nearly 2.5 million positions by 2028. Fortunately, according to the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), manufacturers are willing to pay to close that gap.

Chad Moutray, NAM Chief Economist, said “Manufacturers consistently cite the inability to attract and retain talent as their top concern, and as this survey underlines, they are taking strong proactive steps to overcome it.” The Institute surveyed US-manufacturers on their spending in the sector, which totaled more than $26 billion targeting training programs for new and existing employees.

Trade schools, analytics, sensor technology, robotics, AI, VR, etc. are garnering considerable investment to draw in the talent required to fill the deep need these manufacturers are experiencing.

Experts say that simply throwing money at the problem is not enough. Manufacturers and institutions need to share in the investment and collaborate to ensure that what students are learning now is what will be relevant in the manufacturing sphere by the time they graduate.

Talent simply cannot be trained to meet the needs of businesses because tech is changing at such an exponential rate. Agreements between schools and manufacturers will have to provide work experience opportunities while studying to close the gap.

In Encompass’ own backyard, Guilford Technical Community College has received both considerable financial investment and buy-in from regional manufacturers with the institution’s recently opened Advanced Manufacturing Facility in Jamestown, NC. There is just as much investment from other manufacturers around the country who are hungry for an engage and talented workforce produced locally.

Global Shortages Of Computer Chip Manufacturing Hit Home

With climate change a topic of ongoing significance globally, the reliance on regionally produced tech has put the entire world’s supply of computer chips on thin ice.

Regional environmental conditions are now playing a much larger part than before in how we view the risk associated with supply chain. For example, the majority of the world’s motherboards are manufactured in Taipei, Taiwan. This region is categorically prone to massive and disruptive weather events and earthquakes. For decades, this has been a reality the US, and frankly the rest of the world accepted as part of navigating a global supply chain.

Initially, when the coronavirus pandemic first hit, semiconductor factories shut down, causing delays in the supply chain. Because it can take up to several years for these factories to reach their  previous production levels, the shortage will likely persist for some time.

Everything from TV’s to cars are affected by the shortage of chips, which effectively function as the brain of electronics. To put it in perspective, Apple, the phone manufacturers with a $2 trillion value and semiconductor budget of $58 billion annually, could not get enough of these in-demand chips for their iPhone 12 launch last year. The result was a two-month delay and things are only getting worse for manufacturers big and small.

According to Mirabaud tech analyst Neil Campling, “There is no sign of supply catching up, or demand decreasing, while prices are rising across the chain. This will cross over to people in the street. Expect cars to cost more, phones to cost more. This year’s iPhone is not going to be cheaper than last year.”

Med Device And Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Look Pale

Such supply chain bottlenecks as mentioned above exposed overreliance on external manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and medical devices over the last year, as well.

Supply chain resiliency, through redundancy and duplication, is a costly and time-consuming effort. However, manufacturers are increasingly adopting a shift in thinking to ensure they can avoid the pitfalls COVID-19 has exposed.

Many medical devices and pharmaceuticals are only sourced through specific geographies. As a result, strategic goods and services will need to be tackled first in a new wave of focus from US manufacturing industries and policy makers. Luxury and consumer-driven products will have to take a backseat until those top-shelf items can be secured at home.

Shifting Trade Policies From Corporate To Congress

US manufacturers are driving the demand for diversity in capacity beyond East Asia. However, many of the west’s manufacturers, big and small, are making moves to end reliance on the East Asian manufacturing hubs. Recent upsets in trade policy, like free trade agreements, Brexit, tariffs, the repositioning of NAFTA, etc. all impact these efforts.

While not directly parallel, policymakers and legislators are approaching the problem from their own perspective. Regulators’ opinions on the evolution of the supply chain are translated through a different lens than manufacturers. Geopolitical relationships and national security may not translate into he most favorable outcomes for business back home. Manufacturers want speed, efficiency, and capacity to deliver products to the hands of consumers. Government will view its priorities through a different lens.

Digital Taxation and Role Reversal

As the border between big tech and manufacturing become more blurred, digital taxation and who does what are the new hot topics. With an increase in digital cross over into the material realm, the mechanisms of how to handle taxation have not quite caught up.

Namely, this involves the lines between tech and tangible and where the border between industries is truly defined. Perhaps the broader question is, can it be defined?  With companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, and others, who traditionally created digital products, now constructing marketplaces, and investing in tangible goods, like autonomous vehicles, are they considered the new pioneers in manufacturing?

Where does that leave traditional process and discrete manufacturers? As discrete manufacturers create IoT and IIoT solutions to complement their tangible goods, like sensor and overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) software, do they share the profile of Big Tech? The waters grow muddy. One thing is for sure, the landscape of both tech and manufacturing are sharing more overlap than ever before.

Access to Cash and What it Means for SMBs

Borrowing and access to capital is a defining issue for smaller manufacturers. With interest rates low for manufacturers, questions about effective tax rates, trade relationships, and capital expenditure have been conservative. Fortunately, trade talks with the Biden administration and China have started to take shape, vaccinations are rolling out, and outlooks are generally optimistic.

One leading indicator of this upward trend is found in the number of bankruptcies experienced by manufacturers over the last year. Not nearly as many bankruptcies emerged as were predicted by researchers, analysts, and economists. The big change may have been the fact that banks do not want to become owners like after the 2008 housing crisis. There is simply too much to manage in manufacturing and rather than take on the headache of an industry banks may not know enough about to run effectively, they opted to work with businesses in the sector to find solutions that worked for both sides.

Robotics and Automation

Robots and automation have been four letter words for decades, essentially scaring people away from manufacturing. Unfortunately for fear mongers, the need for skilled labor is even more necessary with the inclusion of these advanced technologies. More engineers, more cobot operators, maintenance personnel, and even truck drivers to fuel the internal distribution networks of the United States re in high demand. There will certainly be upset in the world of manufacturing as these technologies proliferate. However, the timeline by which that proliferation overtakes a human workforce grows ever longer as technology proves to be just as reliant on us as we are on it.

The New Contract Manufacturers

New methods of manufacturing, such as 3D printing or additive manufacturing, are upsetting the traditionally held roles in Industry.

Take, for instance, the effect these technologies have bestowed on traditional distributors.

Third-party logistics providers (3PLs) like Fed Ex, UPS, and others are entering the manufacturing arena, cutting out a space for themselves, and cutting off competitors, in some cases manufacturers, by assuming certain aspects of manufacturing. By leveraging additive manufacturing technology, these logistics providers can cut out the middleman to handle production and delivery of simple parts and components on a decent scale. You can send your CAD file direct to the 3PL, who will then print out the part and ship it directly.

For the recipient, potentially a manufacturer themselves in this case, there is a degree of control that is relinquished. Depending on your product, at some point you will need to verify that your vendor (3PL) is meeting your quality requirements. While the approach is in its infancy with a foundation shaky enough to keep some at arm’s length, it could be a trend that picks up steam quickly. If these providers are able to achieve the quick turnaround they promise and meet quality standards that manufacturers and consumers demand, there could be a real shift on the horizon.

Green Materials Propagate in 2021 Manufacturing Trends

Sustainability has never been a topic weighing as heavily on consumers’ hearts and minds as it is today. This puts more weight squarely on the shoulders of manufacturers.

If consumers want more environmentally conscious products and production methods, it’s up to manufacturers to adapt and educate their customers of the changes taking place.

Take for instance the textiles and plastics being replaced by renewable and eco-friendly materials, like mycelium.

Major global brands like Dell Technologies and IKEA have already committed to adopting a Styrofoam packaging replacement made by Ecovative Design.

Indonesian manufacturer MYCL will soon launch a series of sneakers, sandals, wallets, luggage tags and watch straps made of its mycelium-based leather, Mylea.

The trend has even proliferated into the world of high-fashion, with U.S. manufacturers Bolt Threads and MycoWorks aiming to make mycelium-based leather products more widely available this year.

About Encompass Solutions

Encompass Solutions is a business and software consulting firm that specializes in ERP systems, EDI, and Managed Services support for Manufacturers. Serving small and medium-sized businesses since 2001, Encompass modernizes operations and automates processes for hundreds of customers across the globe. Whether undertaking full-scale implementation, integration, and renovation of existing systems, Encompass provides a specialized approach to every client’s needs. By identifying customer requirements and addressing them with the right solutions, we ensure our clients are equipped to match the pace of Industry.

We came, we saw, it was awesome. Encompass Solutions’ participation as exhibitors and speakers at Automate 2019 gave us the perfect vantage point from which to experience the show and deliver an Automate 2019 recap.

an image of the encompass solutions booth team at automate 2019

Automate 2019 At a Glance

Produced by the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), the show featured more than 500 exhibitors in the massive 160,000-square-feet exhibition space at McCormick Place in Chicago, IL. In addition, the show hosted five educational tracks that included practical training in How to Automate, Automation Solutions & Innovation, Collaborative & Mobile Robotics, AI, Digitalization & Smart Manufacturing, Certified Vision Professional (CVP) Basic, Certified Vision Professional (CVP) Advanced, Certified Motion Control Professional (CMCP), and Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Updates. These tracks included content from introductory level to advanced topics for users, students, educators, and operators. While we delivered an introductory seminar on current automation types, robotics in use on the factory floor, and how you can get started implementing in your own facilities, we attended several breakout and advanced sessions. During each of those talks, one theme emerged over and over–ours is the age of automation.

Here are just a few more happenings from Automate 2019 in regard to new advanced robots and robot vendor developments that are rolling out into facilities worldwide.

Automation 2019 Key Takeaways

There were too many things we learned at Automate 2019 to list in one post. However, we want to share a few highlights that we think everyone needs to consider moving forward:

  • Automation is here and it’s only gaining more momentum as advancements in hardware, software, and utilization become more refined.
  • If you are not thinking about leveraging automation and robotics, you are already behind.
  • While many are expecting an economic downturn between 2020-2022, now is still the best time to begin investing in these technologies.
  • Start small. You don’t have to outfit your entire operation to remain competitive. start with one robot or one instance of automated assembly. build from there.
  • Empower your staff and involve them in the transformation that is coming.
  • Focused Automation and Robotics specializations for employees will be necessary, as there will be less and less room for unskilled staff in modernized facilities.
  • Upskilling current staff will be of greater benefit and lower cost for employers than training and onboarding new staff.=

It’s going to be a hard-fought battle to outpace competitors as automation becomes more affordable and more accessible to small and medium-sized enterprises. Start training and experimenting with automation today and you’ll be ready to weather the bout.

ERP At Automate 2019

We spoke with hundreds of users and manufacturers thinking about robotics and automation during the weeklong Automate 2019 event. While the robots and automation enclosures were captivating, to say the least, one thing few seemed to consider during that time was how they were going to connect those robotics and automated systems to the rest of their enterprise. In short, the answer is an ERP solution.

It’s one thing to install a robot on your factory floor to install windshields, make welds, or assemble PCBs. However, what are you doing with that data from your manufacturing processes? Are you even tracking it? By plugging your robotics and automation data into your ERP system, you are getting more detailed accounts of performance, quality, material and time optimization, maintenance cycles, and so much more. Everyone we spoke with, from attendees to exhibitors to organizers, agreed that ERP connectivity is an essential component of automation and robotics on the factory floor. We look forward to carrying those conversations further and urge everyone looking to automate processes or install robots in their facilities to consider the necessity for visibility and connectivity when evaluating such technologies.

About Encompass Solutions

Encompass Solutions, Inc. is an ERP consulting firm and Epicor Gold Partner that offers professional services in business consulting, project management, and software implementation. Whether undertaking full-scale implementation, integration, and renovation of existing systems or addressing the emerging challenges in corporate and operational growth, Encompass provides a specialized approach to every client’s needs. As experts in identifying customer requirements and addressing them with the right solutions, we ensure our clients are equipped to match the pace of Industry.

With discrete and batch process manufacturers already taking full advantage of advancements in robotics and machine vision technology to improve operations, winemakers and agricultural industries are increasingly leveraging machine vision AI and robotics to improve processes in the vineyard. Coupled with modern ERP systems, these manufacturers are better equipped to weather disruption and establish their foothold in a competitive marketplace.

Manufacturing, packaging, and production are already quite familiar with automation, vision systems, and collaborative robotics. Now, the more traditionally manual and complex areas of agriculture are beginning to feel the influence of these powerful technologies.

AI, Robotics And Automation In Agriculture

For example, Researchers at the Agriculture and Biological Engineering Group at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are making big pushes for robotics and automation proliferation into agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. The group has outlined their vision for the influx of robots, machine vision and AI in three levels. Initially, robots will utilize machine vision technology to survey and collect data that provide insight into a variety of environmental factors. A follow-up with more specialized robots will prepare and maintain sites, performing field operations such as weeding, picking, and pruning. Once a suitable location has been established and the land prepared for operations, third-generation robots and autonomous systems will emerge to automate the complete process from seeding to packing. The vision may still be years from coming to fruition, but examples of second-generation robots are already in the works. Take the California wine industry for example, where robots and irrigation technology are working in tandem to make more efficient use of watering practices in the drought-stricken state.

A Robot Workforce Uprooting Global Wine Industries

The vineyard might be one of the last places people imagine the latest advancements in technology are being utilized. However, the applications of machine vision, AI and robots are disrupting the winemaking industry to such an extent that the benefits of their incorporation are too great to ignore.

Take California’s wine country for example. In a state with one of the most sizable wine industries in the world, while at the same time plagued with drought, innovators have answered the call with Robot-Assisted Precision Irrigation Delivery (RAPID). RAPID uses precision monitoring technology to deliver water through specialized emitters attached to irrigation lines laid throughout a vineyard.

The project was funded with a $1 million grant from the Department of Agriculture and headed by UC Merced professor Stefano Carpin. The unmanned ground vehicle, equipped with GPS can map routes throughout vineyards.  Relying on drone and satellite images, the vehicle will have a continuous view of weather conditions in real-time. Additionally, the robot will utilize a “grasping hand” to turn the water emitters in such a way that increases or decreases the flow of water. This system improves on current irrigation setup considerably, since the irrigation watering systems currently in use deliver a constant flow of water across the entire system. With the more efficient use of water in the drought-stricken region, RAPID can improve vineyard yield, reduce waste, and even customize the watering process dependent on a vineyard’s variety of grape. Carpin hopes to have a fully functional test system available by 2020.

Pruning With Precision Machine Vision Systems

Wall-Ye V.I.N is France’s answer to one of the most labor-intensive components of running a vineyard, vine maintenance. Pruning, de-suckering, and clipping fruitless shoots, to be more precise. Understanding which vines need to be pruned and to what extent is considered a sacred charge in many winemaking circles. Nevertheless, tremendous advancements are being made to automate these laborious and time-consuming tasks. The creation of Burgundy-based inventor Christophe Millot, Wall-Ye V.I.N. has even the most scrupulous winemakers nodding in approval as the economic value the robot presents is undeniable. Take for instance the human component of pruning. It takes somewhere near three years to fully train a pruner to man the vines, whereas Wall-Ye V.I.N. promises to be ready to prune in a fraction of the time. Still, the robot will not be capable of taking on all the associated tasks its human counterparts are responsible and instead take on a collaborative role within the industry.

Meanwhile, across the globe, California-based Vision Robotics is hard at work creating a system considerably larger than Wall-Ye V.I.N. to tackle pruning tasks. Canterbury University’s Australia campus is developing a similar pruning robot as well. All three projects have a common imaging system that feeds into an AI that is focused on 3D modeling to determine which vines make the cut.

Robotics Helping Harvest

Once the cluster-heavy vines are ready for harvest, machine vision, AI and robotics come into play in a big way. Identifying which grapes are going to produce the best wine is an arduous task made easy with the incorporation of modern technology. Take for instance the robots in place at the Hall Vineyards in Napa Valley, California. Once grape clusters have been harvested, the robots on location are fed the clusters to identify which make the cut and which do not. Taking more than 10,000 photos a second, the robot is capable of conducting an analysis of each photograph virtually instantly.

The operator inputs what parameters the robot uses to identify what is acceptable and what is not. All acceptable specimens proceed to a “good fruit” bin at the end of a conveyor, while the rejected fruit is blasted off the line with a precision burst of air. This is just one way that robots improve the efficiency of vineyard operations and enable winemakers to create even more satisfying beverages.

Another example emerges in the EU project, VineRobot, that uses color cameras, Infrared thermography, and GPS techniques to obtain agronomical and physiological data from the vineyard in real-time. By combining all the necessary data to reach a conclusion, VineRobot is able to alert operators and other staff of nutrient deficiencies in plants and ready for harvest fruits based on pigmentation. Throughout the process, Vine Robot is actually creating a complete representation of the vineyard’s crop-quality as a result of the data gleaned from its sophisticated vision sensors and systems.

About Encompass Solutions

Encompass Solutions is a business and software consulting firm that specializes in ERP systems, EDI, and Managed Services support for Manufacturers and Distributors. Serving small and medium-sized businesses since 2001, Encompass modernizes operations and automates processes for hundreds of customers across the globe. Whether undertaking full-scale implementation, integration, and renovation of existing systems, Encompass provides a specialized approach to every client’s needs. By identifying customer requirements and addressing them with the right solutions, we ensure our clients are equipped to match the pace of Industry.

‘Daisy’, the disassembling robot, is Apple’s answer to reclaiming the valuable materials that go into the creation of nearly every Apple mobile and tablet device. Aluminum, cobalt, gold, silver, platinum, and many other valuable metals and rare earths can be extracted using this useful technology. Daisy’s efficiency is punctuated by an exceptional rate of recovery, disassembling and collecting materials from outdated devices at the rate of 200 iPhones per hour.

Not only has the recycling robot enabled Apple to recover these valuable resources, but the machine’s creation process has yielded valuable information on recycling many of these materials in a cleaner and more efficient manner. New processes have eliminated the need to introduce contaminants and other dangerous substances into the recycling process, leading to an unsullied recycling process all around.

Daisy is not the first iteration of a mechanical recycler, though. Liam was the predecessor announced by Apple back in 2016. A very specialized robot, Liam was designed to specifically disassemble iPhones to access the recyclable materials inside. Some of the crucial components Liam sought, and Daisy seeks, out in each iPhone carcass include cobalt and lithium from the phone’s battery, gold and copper from the camera, silver and platinum from the device’s logic board, and aluminum from the enclosure.

Additional Charity With Apple’s GiveBack

Alongside the Daisy announcement, which coincided with Earth Day, Apple has announced the commitment to match customers turn-ins of devices with charitable contributions to the Conservation International environmental non-profit based in Virginia until April 30th. Some devices being turned in will even knab in-store gift cards and credit for those donating.

The press release detailing Daisy and Earth Day campaigns from Apple, along with all media associated with the announcement, can be found in the Apple Newsroom.

Cleaner Streams Of Recycling With Material Recovery Facilities

Daisy’s announcement is just one of the many emerging advancements taking place in the world of Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs). The recent WasteExpo 2018 in Las Vegas highlighted many of the recent advancements in the world of cleaner recycling and material recovery in electronics recycling, cleaning and sorting equipment, and municipal recycling endeavors.

Robotics and Artificial intelligence, in particular, are assuming significantly larger roles in the advancement of recycling efforts, enabling greater efficiencies in:

  • Heavy lifting
  • No deviation due to fatigue
  • Repetitive tasks
  • Continuously high levels of concentration
  • Purity rates and consistent and accurate identification of products
  • Pre-emptively tracking and managing work
  • Maximal operating time
  • Evolutive identification of products and more meaningful data
  • Reproductivity of results
  • Reduced labor and training
  • Lower operating costs

While these innovations in the field of material recovery have enabled companies like CleanRobotics, and AMP Robotics to function with greater efficiency, difficulties remain within the variety of materials flowing into the recycling stream. The resounding answer to the challenge emerges again and again with machine vision.

Material Recovery Pushes Advances In Machine Vision Systems

Coupled with robots on recycling conveyor systems, machine vision systems identify elements and materials according to a number of characteristics. Once identified, the robotic component will employ suction, grippers, and grabbers to remove materials from the conveyor and sort them accordingly, for either direct recycling or further disassembly, if necessary. Eagle Vision and Bulk Handling Systems are two entities addressing the need for more robust machine vision systems in MRFs.

Coupled with robots on recycling conveyor systems, machine vision systems identify elements and materials according to a number of characteristics.

Interconnectivity between MRF system components, read as the Industrial Internet of things (IIoT), allows devices to “speak” with one another across the facility. The results can be presented as simply as “I’m getting too much plastic” to which screens can be adjusted to narrow or expand the flow of specific materials, according to Nathanaël Lortie, co-founder and president of Eagle Vision.

With accuracy rates reaching upwards of 85 -95 percent, these robots and their associated systems far surpass the publics shoddy-by-comparison 30 percent accuracy.

About Encompass Solutions

Encompass Solutions, Inc. is an ERP consulting firm that offers professional services in business consulting, project management, and software implementation. Whether undertaking full-scale implementation, integration, and renovation of existing systems or addressing the emerging challenges in corporate and operational growth, Encompass provides a specialized approach to every client’s needs. As experts in identifying customer requirements and addressing them with the right solutions, we ensure our clients are equipped to match the pace of Industry.

Metal Tariffs

New metal tariffs on foreign materials are likely going to affect industries that employ millions of Americans. Beverage and robotics manufacturing are just two of the affected industries, but these two will be among the segment most heavily affected by the new tariffs on imported building materials. The metal tariffs recommended by the U.S. Commerce Department apply to aluminum and steel imported to the US from abroad. The tariffs reach as high as 53%, which could pose a big problem for industries relying on these essential metals for manufacturing purposes.

an image of a port where metal tariffs will likely have a massive impact.

New tariffs on foreign materials are likely going to affect industries that employ millions of Americans.

The proposed metal tariffs were submitted by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, effectively giving the president three options to choose from as per Ross’ recommendations. The first option is the broadest and most sweeping, in which Ross recommends the president impose tariffs of 24% on all steel and 7.7% on aluminum imports from all countries. The second is far more specific in whose imports are tariffed the hardest, with Ross’ recommended tariffs of 53% on steel imports from 12 countries, including China, Brazil, and Russia, and tariffs of 23.6% on aluminum imports from China, Hong Kong, Russia, Venezuela, and Vietnam. Ross has gone so far as to supplement these tariffs alongside quotas. Finally, the third option Ross has laid out will impose a quota on steel and aluminum imports from all regions, which will limit countries to 63% of the steel and 86.7% of the aluminum that each had shipped to the United States last year.

The Fear Following Metal Tariffs

While it is surmised that these metal tariffs will prompt a reinvestment into the US metals manufacturing sector, some experts believe the shift could earn the ire of many US trading partners. What if, as some economics and trade experts argue, China decides to place tariffs on US semiconductors or India on food imports from the US? Retaliation is the biggest fear according to these specialists beyond the notion that the tariffs will upset the current climate of international trade. Not to mention, most of the US metals importuning comes from valued trading partners and allies not targeted specifically by Ross’ proposed tariffs, like Canada.

US Metal Manufacturing

In the last 18 years, nearly the same number of aluminum smelters have closed their facility doors in the US. Currently, there are only two aluminum smelters running at capacity, with three others in the US operating at partial capacity. On the other hand, steel has enjoyed a bit of a bounce back. Market leaders in metals, like Alcoa and Nucor, are optimistic at the possible shit as it will likely inject US metals manufacturing with some desperately needed vigor. Share prices of US steel and aluminum smelters have surged following the announcement of the proposed tariffs. However, the rally may be premature if the president decides to explore an alternative route in addressing the undermining of domestic metals production.

Nevertheless, Alcoa has announced plans to restart a smelter in southern Indiana by mid-2018. Southeast Missouri may find one if its dormant smelters resurrected, pending negotiations of an electrical supply contract with local utility company Ameren Missouri. While the news for metals manufacturers leaves room for optimism, the state of metals manufacturing has been sorely outpaced by producers like China, which operate many modern facilities that make the processes cost effective. Without significant modernization efforts on top of the revitalization of metals manufacturing in the US, the long-term efficacy of these efforts remains to be seen.

The State Of US Robotics In The Face Of Metal Tariffs

When it comes to the robotics manufacturing industry, the US is a global leader in the field. Innovating creations in every sector from defense and medical applications to the automated manufacturing of confections, the state of robotics has never been more fruitful for the US. However, robotics is an industry that relies heavily on the supply of steel and aluminum as the two metals make up the bulk of manufacturing materials in building robots and robotic components.

The tariffs could significantly increase the costs of innovation at while production gains momentum among competitors abroad. Elsewhere in the world, US competitors in robotics will likely continue to make headway and possibly outpace the US manufacturers forced to adapt to a much different landscape when it comes to materials availability. The imposing of tariffs could additionally upset last year’s optimistic forecast that the metal fabrication robotics market is set to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18.5% over the next three years.

How Brewers And Canners Are Affected By Metal Tariffs

Breweries and canned food companies are two more industries that are expected to be affected by the move, as they rely heavily on imported metals for the packaging of their products. The resulting tariffs, if accepted will not only raise the prices of canned goods but could significantly increase the cost of beer should breweries decide to abandon canning altogether and go to the bottle.

The two different packaging systems require entirely different mechanical apparatuses, which cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to implement operate and maintain for brewers. The result is a more costly six-pack, despite what the container is made of.

About Encompass Solutions

Encompass Solutions is a business and software consulting firm that specializes in ERP systems, EDI, and Managed Services support for Manufacturers and Distributors. Serving small and medium-sized businesses since 2001, Encompass modernizes operations and automates processes for hundreds of customers across the globe. Whether undertaking full-scale implementation, integration, and renovation of existing systems, Encompass provides a specialized approach to every client’s needs. By identifying customer requirements and addressing them with the right solutions, we ensure our clients are equipped to match the pace of Industry.

Space Robots

With the successful launch and reentry of Tesla’s Falcon Heavy rocket, now is an excellent opportunity to talk about space robots, machine vision, and their roles in expanding space research and exploration.


a still of the starman mannequin and tesla roadster with earth in the background from the live feed..

A Stunning View Of Earth Captured Following The Falcon Heavy Launch. Photograph: Live Feed.


Space robots. Emulated after us in terms of morphology and size, they are superior to industrial robots when it comes to versatility and capability. While right now they may not look as advanced or operate as nimbly as their representations in sci-fi features from the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, that gap is quickly shrinking. Taking on repairs and other tasks deemed too dangerous for astronauts, these specialized robots are the obvious candidates for many of the precarious activities taking place beyond the relative comfort of Earth.

Space Robots: R2 Goes To The International Space Station

The first humanoid robot in space, Robonaut 2, R2 for short, was developed by the Dextrous Robotics Laboratory at Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. R2 emerged earlier this decade as the latest subject of robotics research in space. Originally consisting of an upper only torso and arms, R2 has now been equipped with two climbing manipulators, read as legs, capable of providing mobility in zero-g environments to complement dexterous arms and digits that handle intricate tasks. R2’s evolution is a marvel for researchers and enthusiasts to behold, but what’s more impressive than the achievements made over its predecessor, R1, are the advanced sensing capabilities that allow R2 to truly perform in one of the most challenging environments imaginable.

Space Robots: A picture of Robonaut 2 aboard the international space station.

Space Robots: Robonaut 2 Working Tirelessly Aboard The International Space Station.

Machine Vision, Sensing, And Perception

The abilities to touch and see are perhaps the most extraordinary components of these robots’ capability. Vision and sensing components relay complex sets of data such as the identity, position, and orientation of objects in an image. Powerful industrial machine vision and process guidance systems are allowing next-generation robots the ability to evaluate and react effectively in real-time.

Without the component of machine vision, robots are little more than extensions of their controllers and the setpoints governing automated tasks. In R2’s case, 3D vision is the component of machine vision that allows it to perform complex tasks in a semi-autonomous fashion. R2 is both capable of remote control by operators and semi-autonomous operation using advanced software that lets R2 “think” of the solution to a given task. Software updates regularly expand the depth and breadth of R2’s capability. R2’s vision is governed by five cameras in all. Two to provide stereo vision for the robot and its operators, and two auxiliary cameras for backup use. The component of stereo vision allows images from two vantage points to be compared, effectively allowing R2 – and us – to see in 3D. A fifth infrared camera is contained within the mouth area to aid in depth perception. All vision components are housed within the cranium, while R2’s “brain” is located within the robot’s torso. R2 can look up and down, left and right, to fully gauge its surroundings.


Space Robots: a picture of R2 with legs attached

Space Robots: R2 Equipped With Two Climbing Manipulators, Read As Legs, Capable Of Providing Mobility In Zero-G Environments.


A prime example of cooperative robotics at work, R2’s ability to interact with the astronauts on the ISS mimics the way another person might. Operating at a pace relative to humans, R2 has a soft, padded skin that is equipped with sensing systems that allow it to react when encountering a person. Force control is provided by torsion springs inside the robot and allow R2 to react to influence from the environment. So, when a person pushes away an arm, R2 gives to the motion and lets the person by. This sensing capability also provides R2 with continuous awareness of its orientation and the location of its limbs relative to the environment and surrounding people.

Object Interaction

As for Robonaut’s interaction with its environment, its hands work a bit differently than both humans’ and industrial robots’. The key difference resides in R2’s tendon-driven robotic fingers. Typically, robots will control their joints via tension controllers located on each tendon individually. Putting it another way, joint torque translates into tendon tension.  This poses a problem in the case of R2. The resulting disturbances between joint displacement and the tendon had to be addressed for R2 to be able to interact with unfamiliar objects in an array of positions. This is in stark contrast to R2’s industrial cousins, which operate in uniform spaces with familiar objects. The solutions to R2’s dilemma came when NASA and GM engineers devised a joint-based torque control method that decouples the tendon. All this talk about torque is of particular importance for R2, as well as many other humanoid-robots, due to the necessity for adaptable grip when interacting with a variety of objects large and small.

Space Robots: A picture of Robonaut 2 holding different tools

Space Robots: Robonaut 2 Is Capable Of Working With An Array Of Tools. Photographer: Robert Markowitz.

What’s Next For The ISS And Non-Human Crewmembers

The most recent iteration of Robonaut coming from Houston’s JSC is R5, or Valkyrie. Built to compete in the 2013 DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) Trials, the design of Valkyrie took place over a 15-month period and improved electronics, actuators, and sensing capabilities based on earlier generations of JSC humanoid robots. In particular, R5’s vision and sensing system improvements are a tremendous advancement over than those found in R2. Valkyrie’s redesigned head sits on a neck possessing three degrees of freedom and features a Carnegie Robotics Multisense SL, a tri-modal (laser, 3D stereo, and video), high-resolution, high-data-rate, and high-accuracy 3D range sensor, as the main perceptual sensor. Additional modifications include infrared-structured light point cloud generation beyond the laser and passive stereo methods already implemented, as well as front and rear “hazard cameras” positioned in the torso.

Space Robots: A picture of robonaut 5 with hands on hips.

Space Robots: The Latest Iteration Of Robonaut, Robonaut 5, Is Also Referred To As Valkyrie And features The Latest Tech In Robotics For Space Applications.

As research advances technology here on the ground, components and software can be sent to the ISS for utilization. Once proven to operate effectively on the ISS, NASA and other robotics laboratories hope that innovative robotics and associated technologies can be applied further in the depths of space. In the future, thermal resistance for robots will likely be a main focal point for researchers.

About Encompass Solutions

Encompass Solutions is a business and software consulting firm that specializes in ERP systems, EDI, and Managed Services support for Manufacturers and Distributors. Serving small and medium-sized businesses since 2001, Encompass modernizes operations and automates processes for hundreds of customers across the globe. Whether undertaking full-scale implementation, integration, and renovation of existing systems, Encompass provides a specialized approach to every client’s needs. By identifying customer requirements and addressing them with the right solutions, we ensure our clients are equipped to match the pace of Industry.