Dolores Guerra-Macias has become so attuned to her robot counterparts on the factory floor, she can tell just by listening when one has fallen off track. Instead of a clink-clink-clink, she hears a clink-clink-clunk.

Or when the robot that splits the tubes starts cracking them instead, it makes a sound like a metallic tree branch snapping.

“I still get nervous sometimes, but it’s a challenge – a good challenge – to learn more about the robot,” said Guerra-Macias, who was a manager at Little Caesar’s before getting her factory job six years ago.

Her employer, Pressure Systems International (PSI), is one of the many industrial firms turning to automation in San Antonio, where a renaissance in blue-collar robotics is in full bloom.

Somewhere around a third of the industrial firms belonging to the San Antonio Manufacturers Association have embraced automation in some form in the last few years, estimates Rey Chavez, president of the San Antonio Manufacturers Association. These manufacturers benefit from research spilling over from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), one of the nation’s largest and oldest nonprofits for developing automation systems.

The category includes firms like Division Laundry & Cleaners, which advertises itself as the first private laundry service to “fully automate,” and XYREC, a company providing aircraft maintenance services, which recently with the help of SwRI launched the largest industrial robot in the world.

Workers manufacture parts for an automatic tire pressure system on the factory floor at Pressure Systems International.
Workers manufacture parts for an automatic tire pressure system on the factory floor at Pressure Systems International. Credit: Waylon Cunningham / San Antonio Report

PSI produces systems for 18-wheelers and other long haul trucks that automatically regulate tire pressure. It’s a cost-cutting necessity for fleets where tires are often the biggest expense, said Mike McIver, the firm’s vice president of manufacturing.

The move to automation at PSI began five years ago, and the company has since become a standard-bearer for the growing trend among local manufacturers. Last month, the company was showcased at a webinar hosted by the San Antonio Manufacturer’s Association proclaiming the benefits of automation.

PSI representatives were able to share with the attending firms how they approached the issue of implementation – which often creates frustrations with workers, McIver said. A gap inevitably emerges between an engineer’s expectation of how a robot will perform and the reality encountered by the operator on the factory floor, he said.

Leadership at PSI has tried to close that gap by integrating the two sides. The engineer works with the robot on tasks for months, and the operator has opportunities to offer suggested tweaks after it’s on the floor.

“Once you do that, a lot of people fall in love with robotics, they fall in love with automation – because it does make their job easier,” McIver said.

That evolving implementation can stretch over years. One robot, responsible for producing a filtering mechanism, used to pause for a few seconds while it waited for a process to finish. But those seconds add up.

After tweaks, the robot now starts on its next cycle while it waits for the first to finish – cutting four seconds off and producing 600 more parts a day.

The manufacturing association’s Chavez said PSI is a “great example” of how small to midsize manufacturers can use robotics to gain a competitive edge.

“Manufacturers have to compete globally if they want to be successful,” he said. “And robotics will help them do that.”

Pressure Systems International (PSI) has been in the automation space for half a decade and leads the industry forward with various innovations.
Pressure Systems International has been in the automation space for half a decade and leads the industry forward with various innovations. Credit: Waylon Cunningham / San Antonio Report

PSI’s robots are so-called “collaborative robots.” Not fully automated, they require human workers to prep, feed, and maintain it. The firm has partnered with Alamo Community Colleges to train workers for these tasks.

Also assisting with the implementation, at PSI and other local manufacturing firms, is the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center. Similar to the way an agricultural extension office spreads the latest agricultural research among farmers, the center acts as a bridge between local firms and SwRI, which researches automation for industrial manufacturers.

The increasing shift toward robotics in San Antonio and across the country isn’t without controversy. Critics have charged automation with replacing human workers at a faster pace than it creates new positions, a trend some say has accelerated under the coronavirus pandemic.

At PSI, McIver called the charge an “assumption.”

“The people aren’t gone. They just moved to a different position or they go to school,” he said.

Zooming out, up to a third of workers in advanced manufacturing firms could require reskilling of six months or more within the next five years, according to a survey of firms in a recent report from the World Economic Forum. Just over 45% of the surveyed companies said they expect to reduce their workforces in that time period due to automation.

Workers on the factory floor said the robots do not actually process the parts any faster than humans, but they do so more consistently and enforce a rhythm that ultimately increases the rate of production, as workers juggle multiple systems at once.

“Everything in manufacturing is based on throughput and flow,” said McIver, who also is a former Army captain and PE teacher. “You want a certain drumbeat.”

The consistent output and standard quality of PSI’s systems have garnered them clients across the globe. Dozens of flags hang on the factory floor – Germany; Brazil; Israel; and even China, though the relationship with that country has fallen off in recent years.

The factory floor also is where PSI’s sales team brings customers when they want to close a deal, McIver said. The tidy factory lines and precise workflows can make for an impressive sight.

Beneath the flags, dozens upon dozens of stacks of brown boxes sit waiting to be shipped.

“It’s been a good month,” McIver said.

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Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham writes about business and technology. Contact him at waylon@sareport.org.