The Editorial: Keeping Up with the Joneses
In May, Liberty Safe began running a new $10 million, fully computerized assembly plant in Payson, UT. The factory will double the company’s output to more than 700 gun storage safes per day.
Steve Allred, Liberty’s senior vice president and chief operating officer, says the automated line has created jobs. “The new facility will add more than 100 new employees at Liberty,” he says. “It shows that America can compete with anybody—and with better products made in the USA.”
The 12-stage line handles the most critical production processes for the safe. “It does all the heavy lifting and time-consuming bending and welding,” says Buddy O’Neal, Liberty’s director of engineering. “It automatically cuts lengths of heavy-gauge steel for the specific model we’re building. Lasers and CNC machines take over to do the notching and cutting of each door and body, while robotic arms hold and weld the joints. The automated powder-coating process finishes each gun safe in preparation for final assembly, producing a new safe every 90 seconds. Detroit couldn’t do it any better.”
That’s music to our ears, and we hope Liberty’s investment provides a lesson to assemblers across the country. Even as U.S. manufacturers lead our economy out of recession, they cannot afford to rest on their laurels. The rest of the world is rapidly catching up.
Take China, for example. The army of cheap labor that made China a manufacturing powerhouse is neither as vast as once thought nor as cheap as it was. That trend has resulted in a welcome increase in reshoring activity among U.S. manufacturers. (For more on that, read senior editor Austin Weber’s excellent analysis of our 17th annual State of the Profession survey here.)
But, China knows the score. In response to rising labor costs, Chinese manufacturers have been investing heavily on automation. For example, according to the International Robotics Federation (IFR), Chinese manufacturers are expected to purchase some 84,500 robots in 2013. That’s a 126 percent increase from the number of robots they bought in 2009. In contrast, the IFR predicts the North American market will grow by only 3 percent over the same period, and it expects sales to decrease in Italy, France and Germany.
That’s not a recipe for growth, as Singapore building products manufacturer Tiong Seng knows firsthand. Since automating the production of prefabricated building parts at its new factory in Tuas, Tiong Seng has cut its manpower needs by 70 percent. Even with a workforce that is now only a third of what it used to be, the company has doubled its volume of output.
If Liberty Safe can automate profitably, there’s no reason manufacturers of more mundane products cannot follow suit. If you can’t find ways to perform your assembly processes faster, better or cheaper, your competition surely will.