MILFORD — Even a manager at Hitchiner Manufacturing called the work “mind-numbing.”
Freshly hired workers feeding upward of 500 metal parts per shift into machines didn’t always make it through their first day.
“Sometimes probably not through break,” said Douglas Holt, Hitchiner’s automation engineering manager.
So company officials brought in robots.
After a year of three robots now performing those repetitive tasks, the company already is enjoying the savings — projected to be $180,000 or more annually after an estimated first-year savings of $40,000.
And the six workers displaced by the robots have been reassigned to other jobs in the same building, often in higher skilled positions. The company, which booked $253 million in sales last year, has at least 60 job openings locally.
Some Granite State companies — struggling to attract and retain workers — are turning to robots to help fill the gap in human labor.
“Robots are being used more and more” by New Hampshire manufacturers, said Zenagui Brahim, president of the New Hampshire Manufacturing Extension Partnership, which leverages public and private resources and services for manufacturers.
In a report released in June, Oxford Economics measured how hard areas would be hit by the ongoing automation of the manufacturing sector.
“According to our Robot Vulnerability Index, Massachusetts ranks as the 9th most vulnerable U.S. state, and New Hampshire 34th most vulnerable,” James Lambert, one of the lead consultants for the report, said in an email.
“The manufacturing sector plays an important role in both the MA and NH labour markets,” Lambert wrote. “But we deemed NH less vulnerable because it has higher productivity levels in its manufacturing workforce and is further advanced in robot adoption, according to our data.”
Oxford Economics estimated that around 1.7 million manufacturing jobs have been eliminated worldwide since 2000 “due to the global rise of industrial robots” — including more than 260,000 jobs in the United States representing around 2 percent of today’s manufacturing workforce.
A Hitchiner executive doesn’t think that’s the case here.
“I think in this day and age the characterization that robots are displacing workers is fictitious,” said Tim Sullivan, vice president of corporate affairs and services at Hitchiner, which employs 745 in Milford. “It’s a false premise, an alarmist statement — at least in New Hampshire.”
Empower, not replace
A Merrimack company that manufactures autonomous mobile robots has outgrown its space and will be moving next month to Nashua in triple the space.
“We want to empower the existing workforce; we don’t want to replace them,” said Waypoint Robotics co-founder and CEO Jason Walker. “The truth is the customers we talk to, 99.9 percent of them are telling us they have had a hiring sign in the window for four years and can’t find anyone to fill the jobs that they have.”
Walker said his robots are easy to operate and can move hundreds and thousands of pounds of equipment or product, and workers also benefit.
“I go from a shipping and receiving clerk to also being a robot wrangler,” Walker said. “I have a new and valuable skill to the company I’m working for and to myself and if I need or want to go to another company, I have ‘Industry 4.0’ talents.”
Scott Huffman, a manufacturing engineer from a major valve manufacturer in central New Hampshire, said his company has been using a robot from Waypoint that can be operated from a tablet.
“It saves someone having to push a cart around about four hours a day,” said Huffman, who didn’t want to identify his employer. The person pushing the cart was assigned to a job “to use their brain a little more.”
A “working paper” from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco in July concluded that “automation has contributed to lowering real wages since the early 2000s” while boosting labor productivity.
Not using robots at Hitchiner would have required paying overtime to workers.
“A lot of these are undesirable positions, too, so you’d probably have even greater turnover, from workers being required to do mundane, unchallenging work,” Sullivan said.
On a recent weekday, three robots working at adjoining machines refined metal parts about the size of small cork screws. The parts are destined to go into the engines of Dodge Ram heavy-duty trucks.
More robots are planned at Hitchiner. As soon as next month, a robot will help X-ray parts in a new 90,000-square-foot building in Milford. Now, workers set up parts on a tray, take an image and then reorganize them for a different view.
“Some parts we take up to 26 images of,” Holt said.
A robot will make the process more efficient.
“The parts are going to sit still, and the robot is going to move the film around and make all these different adjustments, so it’ll be done faster and simpler,” Holt said.
Advice to workers
Hitchiner has three X-ray tech job openings already. The robot will make the company “more efficient and the ability to take on increased sales,” said Julia Fretwell, the senior HR generalist at Hitchiner.
One of the lead consultants for the Oxford Economics report, Edward Cone, offered advice to workers based on related research.
“Understand that change is coming and look for ways to remain relevant as an increasing number of tasks are automated. That could mean taking classes at your local community college, or taking advantage of educational options offered by your employer,” Cone said.
“These machines will need training, so experienced workers may add value to their employers for a long time on that front,” he said. “Younger workers should consider studying not just technology skills but the so-called soft skills (communication, collaboration, creativity) where humans should outperform machines for some time to come. Becoming a lifelong learner is critical.”