Companies expand to accommodate robots

New York TimesDecember 25, 2013 


An employee works at Pierce Industries, a company that produces printer parts in a Buckingham Properties space, in Chili, N.Y., on Dec. 9. Buckingham, which said they can prepare a lot of space within 90 days, is accommodating for the recent influx of extremely heavy live-in machines, or robots, extending their commercial footprint in preparation for new additions.


Even a robot needs a home.

That is what companies across the country are realizing as they shift more production to robotics. Many are expanding their commercial footprints with new additions or, in some cases, excavating for a lower floor to accommodate the recent influx of extremely heavy live-in machines.

And it is not just the storage space for down time that robots require. Some robots need 32-foot ceilings, roughly double the height in older factories, or the space between columns has to be widened so the equipment can move.

For example, at the SentrySafe factory in Rochester, N.Y., the welder does not wear heat-resistant gloves and a face shield. Instead, a 1-ton robot that towers 8 feet above the production line spot-welds the tops and bottoms of safes before they continue down the assembly line, where a (human) colleague works some 20 feet away.

This fall, Weber-Stephen Products completed a 50,000-square-foot expansion at its factory in Huntley, Ill., to accommodate its new robotic equipment.

“That’s really the primary way we’re staying competitive with Asian manufacturers,” said Mike Kempster, the company’s global chief marketing officer.

Many of these robots vibrate when they run and could be knocked off-balance by an unstable floor, said Larry Glazer, chief executive of Buckingham Properties, which owns and leases manufacturing space in and around Rochester.

“Vibrations are always a problem when you have this real sophisticated equipment,” he said. “It could miscalibrate it, make the machine so it’s not producing parts within spec.”

Scott Marshall, executive managing director of industrial services for the Americas at the commercial real estate company CBRE Group, said conversations about housing robots were becoming more and more common.

Another example involves Ford Motor Co., which added some 600 robots as part of a $555 million overhaul of its Flat Rock Assembly Plant in Michigan.

“The robots basically do the difficult lifting and moving,” said Bruce Hettle, vice president for North America manufacturing.

Companies face the choice of building new plants or raising ceilings and moving support beams in existing factories – and older buildings tend to need upgrades to power, climate and sprinkler systems, as well.

But for a company that wants to ramp up production quickly, renovating an older building can be faster and cheaper than starting from scratch.

“We can prepare an awful lot of space within 90 days,” Glazer said. “New build means design, buying land, permitting,” he said. “You have to figure at least a year to put a building up.”

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