Hammond company builds robots that make factories more productive

2013-10-17T18:00:00Z 2013-10-17T19:27:25Z Hammond company builds robots that make factories more productiveJoseph S. Pete joseph.pete@nwi.com, (219) 933-3316 nwitimes.com

HAMMOND | Manufacturers can pay factory workers pennies a day in Vietnam, China and other countries, and U.S. companies have often found it tough to compete with such rock-bottom labor costs.

A Hammond-based automation company wants to help make local plants more competitive and bring more manufacturing back to the United States, by equipping factories with robots that slim expenses and fatten productivity.

Tri-State Automation has been developing fully automated systems for steel fabricators and other manufacturers that are doing business in an increasingly globalized world where many companies have opted to ship production to distant shores. The Hammond firm can build robots that can weld pipe guides or utility trailers three times faster than any would-be John Henry with a oxy-fuel torch.

The idea is to ensure local factories can remain cost-competitive and stay in the United States, said Tim Keller, operations manager.

"Robots break down, but they don't require sick days," he said. "They don't go on vacation. They don't need benefits. They keep overhead costs down."

Automation has had an increasing presence in local factories over the years. Robots move pallets of car seats into, around and out of the warehouse at Lear Corp.'s Hammond facility. Machines paint, weld and install windshields on vehicles at Ford's Chicago Assembly Plant in Hegewisch.

The efficiencies keep production from being outsourced to other countries, Tim Keller said. Automation can preserve jobs, and workers who are no longer welding often are retrained for new roles, such as programming or troubleshooting the robots, he said.

Tri-State Automation showed off a few examples of its industrial robotic technology at a Tuesday open house, which featured a blackjack-dealing robot that used suction cup-tipped arms to lift up and slap down the cards.

The Hammond-based company is a division of Tri-State Industries, which first started using robotic welders for its steel fabrication work about more than a decade ago. The machines can weld a set of pipe guides in about six minutes, when that work would take 20 minutes if done by a person, employee Bernie Barnes said.

The robots weld seams on the guides that clamp down steam pipes in the boiler rooms of Tri-State's clients, including Abbott Laboratories. The seams are always perfect, Barnes said.

Tri-State chief executive officer Don Keller, who founded the business about 30 years ago, realized other manufacturers would have to turn to robotics to stay competitive.

His company, which employs 65 workers and has locations in Northwest Indiana and Louisiana, bought an Elkhart-based robotics company and invested about $1 million into a new robotic integration division. The new venture was launched about a year and a half ago.

Tri-State Automation offers manufacturers tailor-made turnkey robotic systems, which means the company goes into a factory, figures out how and where to automate the production process and designs the robots to do it. Tri-State will install the robots on-site, train the company's employees how to operate them, and dispatch technicians if any repairs or maintenance are needed in the future.

"It's soup to nuts," Tim Keller said. "We build everything. We purchase the robot and build the entire platform so that once it's installed, you're rocking and rolling."

Demand was greater than the company expected. Immediately, the new venture brought in between $750,000 to $1 million more in revenue, Tim Keller said.

The company aims to serve smaller manufacturers that rope in $25 million to $100 million per year. The target market is the greater Chicago area and, in some cases, nearby states.

Tri-State Automation is currently working on four big jobs, including one for a dolly manufacturer and another for a patio furniture maker in Syracuse, Ind.

"(The furniture manufacturer) had to get his labor costs down and the only way to do that was to automate his welding process," Don Keller said. "We're refurbishing older machines to help make smaller companies competitive again. We want to help lead the re-shoring movement that you're seeing in manufacturing today."

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