Thou Shalt Love Thy Tin Neighbour
New York: The robots were Joe McGillivray’s idea. The first one arrived at Dynamic Group in Ramsey, Minn.
McGillivray is the 38-year-old chief executive of Dynamic, a maker of molds for the mass production of small plastic and metal parts, from 3M Scotch-tape dispensers to bullets. The company was founded 40 years ago by his father, Peter and his friend Dave Kalina, both tool and die makers, in Kalina’s basement. Machining like theirs is labour-intensive.
Even as the business expanded to more than 100 employees in two warehouses in Ramsey many of its customers switched to competitors overseas, induced by improvements in the technologies of developing nations coupled with falling trade barriers. But McGillivray and Kalina found a lucrative niche making molds for the most intricate medical products. Orthodontic braces, for example, use brackets that have unique shapes based on the angles of the teeth to which they will be affixed; the bracket molds, which are injected with powdered steel, must be cut to a degree of precision 40 times thinner than a hair. Thanks
largely to the skill of Dynamic’s machinists, the company did more than survive; it prospered. Then came the Great Recession. For the first time, McGillivray and Kalina, once able to offer bonuses, struggled to make payroll. To keep going, they needed to produce more molds or cut costs, or both. Last month, on a damp, gray day, Joe McGillivray took me on a tour of one of Dynamic’s facilities. He led me to an injection press the size of a bakery oven. Inside, a nozzle moved up and down, shooting molten plastic into a mold, where it cooled around the end of a catheter tube. The resulting piece would be used as a connector by a surgeon threading tools like scopes or stents into his or her body. A young man in a hairnet, gloves and goggles sat at a table facing the press. The robot was beside him. Before the robot arrived, McGillivray told me, four people worked the press. Now, with the robot’s help the cycle took 35 seconds.
It wasn’t the robot’s speed that was revolutionary, McGillivray said, other automated machines could do the same things faster. The innovation was its “collaborative” ability: This robot is safe to work with. If it bumps into someone, it stops. This meant that he didn’t have to build an expensive, semi-permanent safety cage around it. And because the robot is easy to move and reprogram, it can quickly be reassigned to whatever unique processes are required to fill the one-off orders Dynamic typically receives.
The robot’s price tag was $35,000, and within two months, it paid for itself by quadrupling the efficiency of the press and eliminating scrap. There was one caveat, though: “Productivity did decrease when we first put the robots in,” McGillivray said, “because they’re so dang fun to watch.” He has since purchased two more of them from Universal Robots, a Danish company, and hired a technician to maintain them. No one was laid off, and the company’s finances are sounder than they have been in nearly 20 years. “I guess I’m kind of an evangelist,” he told me.