Build­ing ro­bots builds econ­omy

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - BUSINESS - CHRIS TOM­LIN­SON Com­men­tary

“Com­pe­ti­tion im­proves the breed, and when peo­ple im­i­tate, we sim­ply take it to the next level.” Dan All­ford, ARC Spe­cial­ties

Here’s the most im­por­tant thing to know about ro­bots: Hu­mans make them. And the hu­mans who make the best ro­bots make a lot of money.

We hear a lot about los­ing jobs to ro­bots, but we’ve been through tech­no­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tions be­fore. More than half of Amer­i­cans worked in agri­cul­ture be­fore the In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion, while to­day less than 2 per­cent pro­duce most of our food. Hu­mans are tool mak­ers, and elim­i­nat­ing man­ual, rote and thank­less tasks is in our genes.

Build­ing ma­chines to sim­plify oil field tasks is some­thing Dan All­ford has been do­ing since 1980, and he’s wit­nessed how tech­nol­ogy has changed the in­dus­try. As pres­i­dent of ARC Spe­cial­ties in north­west Hous­ton, he’s also been a force for change by op­er­at­ing the only large ro­bot man­u­fac­tur­ing plant in the coun­try.

“Build­ing ma­chines is all I’ve ever done, and a ro­bot is noth­ing more than a flex­i­ble ma­chine,” All­ford told me dur­ing a visit to one of three Hous­ton pro­duc­tion fa­cil­i­ties. “This is Amer­i­can man­u­fac­tur­ing, de­signed, built and pro­grammed in Amer­ica to make other Amer­i­can com­pa­nies more ef­fi­cient to keep the work in Amer­ica.”

ARC started out mak­ing spe­cially clad valves for oil wells and built ma­chines to au­to­mate the man­u­fac­tur­ing. That led to de­sign­ing more ma­chines to per­form dif­fi­cult tasks.

Two weeks ago I wrote about the high de­mand for work­ers who know how to set up, pro­gram, main­tain and trou­bleshoot ro­bots. ARC Spe­cial­ties cre­ates ma­chines

that cre­ate those jobs.

The U.S. is lead­ing the world in buy­ing ro­bots right now, spend­ing $86 bil­lion in 2015, a 30 per­cent in­crease over 2011, ac­cord­ing to the latest fig­ures col­lected by Red­wood Soft­ware and the United King­dom’s Cen­tre for Eco­nomics and Busi­ness Re­search, an in­de­pen­dent fore­cast­ing firm. Higher spend­ing on ro­bots means higher pro­duc­tiv­ity and a faster grow­ing econ­omy.

“There is no doubt about it — robotics is now a sig­nif­i­cant con­trib­u­tor to eco­nomic growth,” David Whi­taker, the cen­ter’s man­ag­ing econ­o­mist, said. “Robotics’ cu­mu­la­tive im­pact on the over­all econ­omy has been much larger com­pared to the mon­e­tary value of robotics to­day. We ex­pect to see pro­gres­sively more ro­botic au­to­ma­tion in the years to come, with com­men­su­rate ben­e­fits to over­all eco­nomic growth.”

Au­to­ma­tion does not nec­es­sar­ily elim­i­nate jobs, Whi­taker added.

“There is clear ev­i­dence that points to­wards ro­botic au­to­ma­tion in many cases be­ing a com­ple­ment for hu­man labor, rather than a di­rect sub­sti­tute ,” he con­cluded. “As more mun­dane tasks are au­to­mated, hu­man ef­fort be­comes more valu­able as it is fo­cused on higher-level tasks, cre­ativ­ity, know-how and think­ing.”

That’s been All­ford’s ex­pe­ri­ence at ARC, where he em­ploys 60 highly trained peo­ple, rang­ing from me­chan­i­cal, elec­tri­cal, soft­ware and weld­ing engi­neers to skilled ma­chin­ists, elec­tri­cians, welders and painters.

“The only way we can com­pete with low-cost labor is through ef­fi­ciency. My ma­chines pro­vide a more ef­fi­cient way to pro­duce prod­ucts,” All­ford said. “I be­lieve ev­ery­body de­serves a job. Ev­ery­body de­serves a way to make a liv­ing. What we’re try­ing to do is help com­pa­nies do that by creat­ing ma­chines that make goods that are sal­able over­seas.”

While All­ford must build his own large ro­bots to build things like 80,000-pound blowout pre­ven­ters for oil wells, he buys smaller ro­bots from for­eign sup­pli­ers and adapts them for cus­tomers with smaller jobs.

The next big trend in au­to­ma­tion is the col­lab­o­ra­tive ro­bot, called a co-bot. Un­like in­dus­trial ro­bots that work in cages away from peo­ple, these ma­chines work along­side hu­mans to aid in tasks too com­plex for the ma­chine alone.

“If it hits you, it won’t hurt you,” All­ford said, stand­ing next to a pro­to­type that com­bines a Dan­ish co-bot with ARC’s weld­ing tech­nol­ogy. The pro­to­type will be un­veiled in Novem­ber at the FabTech in­dus­trial show in Chicago.

Man­u­fac­tur­ers shipped 8,950 co-bots in 2016 and that num­ber is ex­pected to reach 434,400 in 2025, ac­cord­ing to Loup Ven­tures, a re­search firm spe­cial­iz­ing in au­to­ma­tion. Even with ro­bot costs com­ing down, the co-bot mar­ket will be worth $9 bil­lion in 2025, the com­pany said.

While all of ARC’s cus­tomers in the past were oil and gas com­pa­nies, All­ford is di­ver­si­fy­ing.

“There are a lot of fas­ci­nat­ing prob­lems to be solved here,” he said. “What we’ve found is that the same tech­nolo­gies that work with coat­ings for the oil field work, also work for nu­clear, the mil­i­tary and ground-en­gag­ing wear.”

That’s the kind of en­tre­pre­neur­ial think­ing that ex­pands com­pa­nies and cre­ates job. All­ford said he doesn’t need govern­ment sub­si­dies or trade pro­tec­tion. He wel­comes for­eign com­pe­ti­tion and only wants a level play­ing field.

“We in­no­vate and oth­ers du­pli­cate. That’s the way of the world,” he told me. “Com­pe­ti­tion im­proves the breed, and when peo­ple im­i­tate, we sim­ply take it to the next level.”

There is no stop­ping the march of the ro­bots, but their ad­vance of­fers more op­por­tu­ni­ties than chal­lenges for those

Chris Tom­lin­son is the Chron­i­cle’s busi­ness colum­nist. chris.tom­lin­son@chron.com twitter.com/cltom­lin­son www. hous­tonchron­i­cle.com/au­thor/ chris-tom­lin­son

Hous­ton Chron­i­cle file

Jor­dan Smith su­per­vises a cladding ma­chine at ARC Spe­cial­ties. The ro­botic ma­chine puts a cor­ro­sion-re­sis­tant al­loy on oil field valves and com­po­nents.

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