Automate Manufacturing with BMW/EWI

Buffalo Manufacturing Works (BMW) in Buffalo, New York is helping small-to-medium manufacturers automate their operations with technologies such as collaborative robots, or co-bots. BMW is part of EWI, a non-profit engineering and technology organization that is dedicated to developing, testing, and implementing advanced manufacturing solutions across North America. Matt Malloy, BMW’s Automation Program, spoke with FuzeHub about overcoming barriers to automation and how NYS manufacturers who join us for a virtual event on February 23, 2022, can find the practical solutions that they need.

Listen to the Podcast


Steve Melito: Hey, welcome to New York State Manufacturing Now, the podcast that’s powered by FuzeHub. I’m your host, Steve Melito, and today we are with Matt Malloy, who is the Automation Program Manager at Buffalo Manufacturing Works. Matt, welcome to New York State Manufacturing Now.

Matt Malloy: Hey guys. Thanks for having me.

Steve Melito: Oh, you’re most welcome. So Matt, what is Buffalo Manufacturing Works and what is your relationship to an acronym EWI?

Matt Malloy: Good question. So Buffalo Manufacturing Works is a nonprofit applied R& D organization in Buffalo, New York. So applied R& D means we do development and applied research type work in a lot of different fields. We’re actually part of EWI, which is based in Columbus, Ohio. The site here in Buffalo uses the name Buffalo Manufacturing Works because it’s a big part of what we do locally is to help local manufacturers identify and prove out new advanced manufacturing technology. So Buffalo Manufacturing Works was the name given to this larger initiative that started several years ago. Her capabilities and subject matter experts are really spread out between the two sites, both in Buffalo and Columbus. If you were to go to both you’d see some differences there. The Columbus site focuses heavily on core process expertise. So we have some world leading experts in a lot of the really fundamental processes around manufacturing, especially things like joining and welding and forming and other processes that pretty much everybody uses. But when you need to develop something new or find a better way to do it or fix a problem, those are the people you go to and they help you out. The site here in Buffalo focuses more on things like automation, metal 3D printing, our metal additive manufacturing, data science, a lot of characterization and also training. So we do things around automation training, welding training, that sort of thing. And we’re also in the process of setting up a new Center of Excellence here around cold spray, which should be online sometime later this year. So quite a bit going on between the two sites.

Steve Melito: Sure sounds like it. So Matt, what type of companies do you like to work with? Are they large or small, new or established, maybe all of the above?

Matt Malloy: So we really like to work with companies across the spectrum. We have a very excited team around technology. So if it’s an interesting project, something that our team can help on, we want to do it. So we work with very small companies, large companies, large government organizations, new companies, old companies, old companies doing new things. A little bit of everything. Locally here, out of the Buffalo manufacturing work site, we support national and local clients. I’d say a lot of our local clients are more in the small and medium sized manufacturing space, especially with the things we do for automation, but we also work really closely with the community. So we’re not really here to just say, here’s what you’re going to go do. We spend a lot of time and effort trying to understand what the community’s asking for. A lot of survey work, a lot of consensus building, trying to figure out what is the manufacturing community need, where can we help the most, what can we do to make an impact for the region and then nationally as well. Most of the work we’re doing around automation right now is also on that small and medium manufacturing size, or at least say smaller subsidiaries of large organizations, which are by nature small and medium manufacturers. So we can talk about some of the different projects and things we’re working on, but helping these companies figure out what to do, how to do it, where to do it, what to use, prove it out, all the way through the process.

Steve Melito: That’s great. And I’m glad you mentioned small to medium manufacturers a couple of times because a lot of industry surveys, many small to mediums say they want to automate, but their rates of automation are lower than many of us who support manufacturing would frankly like to see. What’s going on here? What are the barriers to automation?

Matt Malloy: Yeah, we see the same thing, and it’s always surprising because sometimes it’s very obvious on the outside and even inside for them that they need it. It just doesn’t happen. So there’s a lot there though. Unfortunately it’s never one simple clear-cut answer like we’d all like to see. If it was, we would’ve all solved it by now. So there’s some obvious things like costs and challenges around finding the right solution for your particular application. And we can get back to some of those details, but what we see quite often is the barrier is simply bandwidth. It’s one of those things that’s easy for someone on the outside to just say, well hey, you should have planned better, or just go hire more people. But that’s not really practical or realistic for most manufacturers. Sometimes it is in an ideal case, but most cases are not ideal and we’re certainly not living in an ideal world right now. So maybe a good analogy is to say something like, if you’ve ever had a small leak in your roof, and I’ll just say firsthand experience, we had a little leak that I told myself at first it wasn’t really a leak. I’m like, no, that’s just an anomaly. It turns out to be a little leak and you put it off and you put it off and you tell yourself, hey, this is really important because it could turn out to be something really big. I don’t want my attic to be full of mold or I don’t want the roof to cave in or something like this. And you say, well, okay, I’m going to work on this. This is the biggest priority this weekend, and then something else comes up, and then something else comes up, and it keeps getting pushed off. But you could see where if it doesn’t eventually get taken care of, it’s going to be a disaster. And the same thing happens in manufacturing all the time. This idea of, I need to automate this thing. We all agree, everybody sees it, it’s our top priority, can very quickly fall through the cracks. And that’s because the people that are trying to do that are also trying to balance the rest of the business and deal with the day- to- day firefighting and any other strategic priorities. We’ve all got a million things on our mind and we’re all moving really fast and we’re all trying to figure out what’s going on in the future and deal with the day’s activities. So that bandwidth topic I think is really what gets in the way. And if it helps, I could walk you through what we see, how that usually plays out.

Steve Melito: Sure, I’d certainly like to hear more because hey, the last couple of years have been especially challenging from the being shut down to having workforce disappear, to having supply chain issues, there’s no shortage of bandwidth type challenges.

Matt Malloy: Exactly. So I guess what we would typically see, to varying degrees, but if we look at automation specifically, the scenario is usually something like this. We’ll talk to a company or they’ll ask us about something and it’s very clear that there is a need and we can work with them to help figure out exactly what to do and how to go about it. Or sometimes they already know and they’re just looking for some advice. They know they need to do it and that’s the thing, and they know what they’re going to do. And then they start working on the problem either themselves or someone on their team and they get very quickly overwhelmed. There’s a lot that goes into planning and preparation for automation work that most people don’t plan on doing. And it’s not really technical roadblocks. The technical part is sometimes the more straightforward part, it’s all the other stuff that they need to do. They’ll start researching what options to use. How do I go about doing it? And for everything that you look at, there could be a variety of ways to do it. And then identifying vendors and then deciding on a solution and coming up with a concept and writing up requirements and getting pricing and before you know it you’re thinking, hey, there’s a whole lot of stuff here I need to do. And then you start to lose confidence in what you’re doing and then you start to divert your resources to the other things you can address, the daily firefighting stuff. So it sounds silly, it sounds like something we could all just say, hey, we’re going to focus on this and we’re going to get it done. But usually it falls through the cracks, and everybody realizes it as well. So we spend a lot of time trying to help people not get stuck in those cycles, helping them figure out how to go down this path, what to do next, how do you work with vendors to figure this out, how do you come up with concepts to do this type of thing? But when people can get through those early steps, then they’re usually off and running and it’s good. It’s really the bandwidth and maybe the corresponding follow through on those earlier stages that really seems to prevent a lot of automation adoption.

Steve Melito: So those early steps, is that the best way for small to medium manufacturers to begin their automation journey?

Matt Malloy: Yeah, we think so, right. There certainly are some companies out there and some people that would just say, hey, I just want to go add automation, or I just want to go add a robot. It may work. More often than not it fails. I couldn’t even tell you how many facilities we’ve been in where somebody went out and just went full steam ahead and bought automation, and then it’s sitting in a corner under a tarp because it wasn’t really thought out well in the beginning, and they didn’t do the due diligence to say, are we going down the right path? Are we addressing the right problem? That’s a big aspect of say, looking at the process first, working with your local MEP organization to figure out is your workflow the way it should be? Is your process the way it should be? Are you really spending money and investing in automation for the right problem and are you doing it the right way? So yeah, we think taking the time to do those steps upfront is going to pay off in the long run.

Steve Melito: That’s great. And you mentioned MEP, which was actually going to be my next question, so very nice lead in here is how does BMW work with the New York MEP system?

Matt Malloy: So we’ve done quite a bit with the MEP network mainly within our automation program. And the reason is, is we found that it works out really well for the end users if they have a team that’s coming in and looking at it from both the technology side and the process side. So EWI by nature is a very technical organization, so we can get very excited very quickly about cool new technology and shiny toys. We like to look at that stuff. We can visualize what’s going to happen, we can figure out how it’s going to help you, but we need to be grounded in the fact that adding technology to fix a broken process isn’t going to solve your problem. It’s just going to be a bandaid. So we like going in with the MEP organizations because if we can go in hand in hand, we’re focused on the technology aspect of it. The MEP organization is really focused on the process and workflow aspect of it. And then there’s certainly some obvious overlap between those two. That allows us to bounce a lot of ideas off of each other, make sure concepts make sense, make sure we’re heading down the right path, we’re targeting the right solution. And in the end, that works out much better for the end user. We like doing that. The other aspect there is, and I don’t know if everyone realizes this, but your local MEP organizations are usually a really good source of grant funding depending on what your application is. And so sometimes these projects can be expensive when you’re adding in automation. They don’t have to be, but they can be. And a lot of that cost is not the capital, it’s all of the development time and the resources that go into making it happen. And the MEP networks are the ones that have insight into what can be done there, what grants are available, they can help you coordinate those things. And so a lot of our work is side by side with the MEPs is the MEP network handles all of that kind of funding aspect of it to help find out what grants and other funding resources are available. Definitely a good resource regardless of what it is you’re trying to improve. If you don’t have a relationship with your local MEP, you should reach out, figure out what’s out there and what they can do to help.

Steve Melito: Great. Hey, are there some BMW success stories that you’d like to share?

Matt Malloy: Yeah, sure. As a whole, Buffalo Manufacturing Works, I’d say has a lot of success stories and even across EWI in a broad range of things. So we’ve done some really world- class stuff in all of our different kind of application spaces. So the metal 3D printing, research and development and a lot of neat things in data science and certainly all the stuff around welding and joining. But I’ll keep it specific to the automation side here for small and medium manufacturers. I’d say our success stories revolve around, maybe two main themes, I guess I could break it into. One is helping companies figure out where they should implement automation and what’s practical. And sometimes, maybe in the best cases, you don’t need a big complex solution. There may be just an off the shelf thing that you can add and get an almost immediate improvement. Or you may find that once you start really looking at the process with some external support, you realize you don’t actually even need to add automation, you just need to make a few tweaks to your workflow or to your process and you can solve most of your problems. So we spend a lot of time with companies doing that type of work, walking their factories with them, talking to the staff, talking to the engineering and leadership teams, and then talking to the operators and then observing what’s going on the floor and then using the combined knowledge of everybody to say, hey, you have a really good opportunity to do this in this space or add this technology here. So a lot of our work is that. So some good examples, one that always comes to mind for us or say two, is around things, so automated bagging and automated labeling. Labeling and bagging are things that most manufacturers have to do one way or another. Bagging can become very tedious, so most companies don’t have automation for it. And if you have a lot of products going through your fulfillment area, you’ve got people that are standing there all day trying to open up little plastic bags and they’re stuck together and all that sort of thing. There is very simple technology out there that will literally just blow open the top of the bag as soon as you need it so it’s wide open, the person can drop the parts in, the bag will immediately seal and drop into a bin. And some of these are very inexpensive. So it’s a simple solution, off the shelf solution, that some companies use very readily, but a lot of companies just simply don’t know about or they think it’s going to be complex and expensive. Similar with labeling, a lot of things need to be labeled, whether it’s a box or a package or a specialty cable, printing out all those little labels by hand on a label maker and placing them on or wrapping them around something can become very tedious and it just takes a lot of time. So just like the bagging side, there’s a lot of equipment out there that you can add that can just automate that process. It pulls information from your MES system if you have it, or from even a spreadsheet, simply prints out and applies a label right away or prints it directly onto a package. Those are some good examples of just simple off the shelf stuff that we can help people identify. And we’ve done a lot of that type of work.

Steve Melito: Great examples, really. Yeah.

Matt Malloy: Yeah. And even locally, some of those. At the other end of it though, is more the complex side of things. So we focus a lot on collaborative robots now. If you’re not familiar collaborative robots or cobots, you might hear them called, they look just like industrial robots, but they’re meant to be safe to work around people and they’re way easier to program than the older traditional robots. So really the key thing there in the beginning was the safety. Now it seems what people are most interested in is how easy they’re to program, especially the basic stuff. You can still do very complex stuff in the background and usually you would have somebody else develop that for you, but for the things you need to do right on the floor or even simple setups, you can do it pretty quickly. It’s more like what everything else is nowadays, it looks like you’re programming something on an iPad versus an industrial pendant, can grab the robot by hand and physically move it to where you want and tell it, this is where I need you to be, can do things in a much safer, more convenient manner. And you could have people that are on your team that may not have any background in automation, pick it up very quickly. So these are great for small manufacturers because they can bring them in, they can have these robots address things that people don’t want to do anyways, the very tedious work. Nobody wants to stand there doing the same motion all day long every day. So you could have an operator that has to do that, maybe now this cobot can do that, and this operator can very quickly learn how to set up that robot to do the next job or to troubleshoot or to go work on something more interesting. So we see collaborative robots as a great way for manufacturers to address what they need, especially around workforce challenges and things, and a great way for the employees to learn about robots, get involved and have an opportunity to increase their level of skill. So a lot of our work is around that lately. We’ve got a couple projects going on where we’re right now working on automated screw- driving one which uses a cobot, that’ll be for a very high volume process. We’re doing other things around material handling with collaborative robots. We’re actually working jointly with a school up front, a trade school where we’re developing a mobile cobot machine tending platform that they’re going to be able to use on their CNC machines to keep these things running overnight, because they’re actually running some small batch production and their students are going to get a chance to work on these things and learn how to use and program them before they even graduate. So a lot of our work and stories lately have been around those types of things. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on which way you look at it, our work is confidential in nature, so I can’t give out specific names and details, but we do publish some of that stuff from time to time once projects are done and if those companies want to show off the work.

Steve Melito: Sure. And there is a easy way for manufacturers to learn more about what you do, how you work with the MEP system, that’s coming up in February, I think it’s on the 23rd and FuzeHub and BMW in conjunction with two regional New York MEP centers, Insight Consulting in Western New York and AMT and the Southern Tier are partnering on a virtual event called Automation and Beyond, Practical Solutions for Manufacturers. We all get excited about those shiny toys, as you say, what manufacturers want, practical solutions. So I’ve probably set you up to answer this one already, but why should quality leading manufacturers attend this event?

Matt Malloy: Yeah, you did answer that. I don’t think I have much good to add there. I think the biggest thing is it is really targeted towards the local manufacturing community, right? In New York, there’s a ton of manufacturers obviously, and the organizations that are working on putting this together are really in touch with those communities. It’s being put together by the MEP network and those MEPs are very familiar with what’s going on in their areas. They know what a lot of the manufacturers need and what those pain points are. So this event is really going to be targeting those. It’s a fairly short, concise event. I think you’ll hear some really good insight and you’ll get a chance to also hear from some of the local providers and vendors and things for some of the stuff you may be looking for. And given that they’re local, it’s always nice to have local resources for this stuff. Finding someone you can drive over to, maybe at most a couple hours and meet with, especially when you’re starting down this path with automation is very, very helpful.

Steve Melito: For sure. Well, I am looking forward to it. Hey, you’ve been listening to New York State Manufacturing Now, the podcast that’s powered by FuzeHub and we’ve been talking to Matt Malloy, who’s the Automation Program Manager at Buffalo Manufacturing Works. Matt, thank you so much for being on the podcast and I certainly look forward to working with you on this event that’s coming up.

Matt Malloy: Hey, thank you guys. I really appreciate it.

Steve Melito: Hey folks, before we sign off, I want to make sure that you know how to learn more about Automation Beyond, the event that is scheduled on February 23rd 2022, 9:00 AM to 12: 00 PM. It’s a virtual event. The way to find out is to go online, go to fuzehub. com/ mfg- expo- automation- and- beyond/. Or if you don’t want to type all that out, just contact me, stevemelito@fuzehub. com and we can have a conversation about the event and we can find out maybe if you qualify as an exhibitor, or if it’s best for you to come as an attendee and what you want to learn, and we can also talk about who you should talk to. So again, on behalf of FuzeHub and New York State Manufacturing Now, this is Steve Melito signing off.

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