Episode 40
Simon Kenworthy
Shape Process Automation

 

More and more sectors of the manufacturing industry are realizing the benefits of automation and robotics in their processes. To explore this, Simon Kenworthy, ManagingDirector, SPA-NA, Shape Process Automation, joins TECH B2B Marketing’s Jimmy Carroll and Winn Hardin to discuss the unique needs of the food and beverage industry, a long-time laggard when it comes to automation, as it begins embracing automation. They also explore the automotive industry’s automation evolution as electronic vehicles proliferate and demand more modularity, flexibility, and ease of use.

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Shape Process Automation-Business Forum 2024_2 PG.m4a: Audio automatically transcribed by Sonix

Shape Process Automation-Business Forum 2024_2 PG.m4a: this m4a audio file was automatically transcribed by Sonix with the best speech-to-text algorithms. This transcript may contain errors.

Jimmy Carroll:
Hi, everybody. My name is Jimmy Carroll. I'm the vice president of operations at Tech B2B Marketing, and we're here for the Manufacturing Matters podcast. I have the pleasure of being joined by Simon Kenworthy and my colleague Winn Hardin. Simon, thanks so much for taking the time with us today. I really appreciate it.

Simon Kenworthy:
My pleasure, Jimmy. Nice to meet you guys.

Jimmy Carroll:
Thank you. So Shape Process Automation. For those who don't know about the company, could you tell us about what you guys do and what you do there?

Simon Kenworthy:
Absolutely, yes. So Shape Process Automation, part of the Shape Technologies Group, a larger group focused very much on the trimming and cutting of materials, material handling, amongst many other things that we do in the business. I'm responsible for operations in North America. So I'm managing director of Shape Process Automation North America. What do we do? We got a couple of facilities in North America, one in Auburn Hills, one in Burlington, Ontario, and we focus very much on adding process to customers' materials, whether that's in the automotive, whether it's in food, whether it's in aerospace, whether it's in the GI space, whether it's in the EV or light-weighting space, which is the new trend in automotive. And we apply process to that. So some people call us an integrator. Maybe we're not an integrator, but we have "process" in our name for a reason because we apply that process. So a little bit more than just bolting islands of automation together and coming up with solutions.

Jimmy Carroll:
So we talked about a few different application areas there. And so you work across different areas. Are you seeing any particular notable advancements in certain spaces, like food production, for example?

Simon Kenworthy:
For sure, and maybe rewind a little bit back. We really cut our teeth in the automotive industry, in the soft trim automotive industry. First, implementation of robotics with high-pressure water jets, which is part of the Shape Technologies Group. We have the KMT and the Flow brands and the H2O brands, which are the market leaders in ultra-high-pressure technology. So we use that technology to trim headliners, car carpets, wheel well liners, that type of thing. So we really cut our teeth in that. And for the last 50 years, that's what we've done. It's still a really key part of our business. But we made the decision back about four years ago to not be so reliant on the waves that come through this automotive industry. We still have deep roots in aerospace, areas like EV, light-weighting. So these new dynamic materials that are very strong but very light that go into vehicles, like boron, steel, carbon fiber, things like that. But really looking at food, which was a real change for the industry. Everything was done manually, assembling sandwiches and things like that, using app automation and robotics to really improve that process and deal with the issues in labor, a huge dearth in labor. We heard this morning there's a little over 8.5 million open positions, not just in the food industry but just in the general U.S. Market. So we looked at ways that we could apply that, and we're really specific and focused on how we did that.

Winn Hardin:
So even though we're seeing a little dip. We saw earlier today some presentations, folks were talking about, you're seeing a small dip in the food manufacturing. It's really not clear whether that's food generation, processing, packaging necessarily. I'm guessing it's probably across the whole board. It's some softness.

Simon Kenworthy:
It's a myriad of different areas of business inside food. We're very much focused on prepared foods. It's something that's become more prevalent. We heard the Jimmy Dean sandwiches, and believe it or not, those are assembled now by robots. A series of Delta robots put in the bread, put the protein in there, putting the cheese, the egg, the whole thing, all automated. Whereas before you'd have 16 people to what is now one robot putting those sandwiches together. So huge volumes. They're looking for consistency, just like we do in any other business, and reliability and reduction in rework or scrap, in this case scrap sandwiches.

Winn Hardin:
Better than scrap metal.

Simon Kenworthy:
Much tastier.

Winn Hardin:
Exactly.

Simon Kenworthy:
It's interesting how that's become more reliant on that type of thing. So I'm not sure whether the dips and falls really come. But prepared foods is obviously a huge growth node.

Winn Hardin:
So how was that business segment doing the last few years, COVID and post?

Simon Kenworthy:
So pre-COVID was very much manual. But then the challenges that came with the labor, nonavailability of labor or people moving on, the huge churn in labor. I think some of the bigger players in that industry really had an automation journey mapped out and began to invest heavily in that process. We see it not just in those sandwiches but in pork bellies and bacon and all different kinds of products like that.

Winn Hardin:
So is that investment continuing or are we going to take a little pause? It sounds like we're hearing the same thing from warehousing a little bit. And we all know the logistics and warehousing went through the roof prior to COVID, which was only exacerbated during COVID times. So is the market kind of taking a breath or do you think it's in that softness or is it cyclical to a certain extent, or is it people who are still focused on the macroeconomic, waiting for that shoe to drop?

Simon Kenworthy:
I'm not sure it's waiting for the shoe to drop. It was such a mega-trend in terms of the adoption of robotics and automation that there's only so much you can do in the food industry in a certain period of time. So we saw, like we said, '21, post-COVID, '22, huge growth in that business for integrators and people like ourselves, and those customers only have so much bandwidth to be able to do that. So they go through the automation, the concept of the automation, the implementation, and then they've also got to make money with that product. And take a breath and then move on their next step. So most of those large OEMs and the food business have an automation road map, a journey, and kind of have that figured out. So yeah, a little bit of a pause in '23. Expect to see it coming back in '24 again. And we're already seeing the signs of that in our business.

Winn Hardin:
Good. Hoping that's a continuing trend.

Simon Kenworthy:
Yeah absolutely. It's got to be.

Jimmy Carroll:
On that note of continuing trends, one of the things you brought up I wanted to ask about was EV manufacturing, which is fairly new. And things are changing there. So the automation industry kind of had to adapt to some of these processes, like battery cell production and EVs. And are you noticing other processes and customer needs that have required you guys to make really unique changes or leverage new technologies, this kind of thing?

Simon Kenworthy:
Yeah, it's a diverse business. So I talked a little bit about soft trim. That doesn't really change whether it's ICE or EV. They need interiors for vehicles and exterior panels, but in terms of battery tray manufacture, a battery assembly, there's been a huge growth through that business. Not sure how that's going to continue to grow because of the infrastructure restrictions, etc. That's really a 10-, 15-year . . .

Winn Hardin:
Choking the market a little bit.

Simon Kenworthy:
Exactly. Everybody would love to drive an EV, I'm sure, but we've got to have the infrastructure to support that. So what does that look like? We still have to be economical in terms of the way the vehicles perform. So we need to use these lightweight materials. So there's still a drive to deal with these new materials and apply new technology, whether that be laser, whether that be high-speed machining, whatever it is. There's also a trend towards these new giga-castings, these large castings, which will obviously become prevalent going away from real big heavy stampings to lightweight materials, lightweight modules that can be bolted together, automated in terms of manufacturing and assembly. So those trends are growing.

Winn Hardin:
Is that primarily in heavy equipment or is that in automotive as well?

Simon Kenworthy:
Well, it's certainly in automotive and it's somewhat in heavy equipment, but more so in automotive, where they have these platforms, these modules that they want to build the different vehicle frames on.

Winn Hardin:
Kind of a unibody, or not a unibody per se from the traditional sense, but just a more modular approach, more interchangeability.

Simon Kenworthy:
Kind of like the skateboard model, right? The battery is considered a skateboard, and then we stick everything else on top of that.

Winn Hardin:
And so when light-weighting are you talking aluminum, carbon fiber? What exactly?

Simon Kenworthy:
We're talking aluminum. We're talking carbon fiber. We're also talking boron steel. So these ultra-high-strength steels that are hot stamped. So they're formed with a high temperature. They're significantly thinner than regular carbon steel but significantly stronger. So that comes with a nuance that you can't drill or punch it. You have to laser cut it. So we have to build these complex systems that will drill features, put in slots, trim off the excess materials very repeatedly, very fast, in less than two minutes per side of the vehicle, for example. So extremely fast, high volumes but flexible volumes. That's the other thing with the EV market. It's not like, when one of the Big Three say, We're going to make 500,000 vehicles a year, it's going to be this form, and we'll set up the line to do that. The trend we're seeing now is those volumes are changing, the smaller runs or smaller volumes per year, but different volumes per year. So the automation needs to be flexible. It needs to be able to be easily deployed. It needs to be able to be built fast, installed fast, programmed fast. So we're kind of saying right now that we need to automate our automation. What I mean by that is we need to figure out how we program things easier and we become less reliant on robot programmers. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but so we can respond faster.

Winn Hardin:
Plus there's just not enough of them around right now. I mean, the ease-of-use thing is something . . . every single company and every single person we talk to, they're always talking about ease of use. And I always say, Let's peel back that onion a little bit, because it's like AI to a certain extent. It's a great tool. It has real value. But sometimes the hype overextends the delivery of the promise. So ease of use. How do you guys tackle that? I mean is that just about more simplified? Is it primarily done in the software space, other areas, training, more personal handholding, leveraging distribution channels?

Simon Kenworthy:
There's a little bit of all that. But it's certainly in the software space. Definitely in the training space, so the more we can do offline and really get to CAD-to-part, the better that process is for the customer. Because we know that vehicles change. There's upgrades. There's also small changes made through the daily manufacturing process they need to cope and deal with. So we provide software and tools to be able to do that, and we continue to invest in that type of development so that we make it easier not only for the customer but for also our team during that process and that support process.

Jimmy Carroll:
From a component standpoint, these individual technologies that you're leveraging in a lot of your systems, whether it's robots or machine vision or motion control or software, there's been a lot of advancements, obviously, and there will continue to be, and that's an obvious thing, but how have recent advancements in some of these components kind of pushed your capabilities forward?

Simon Kenworthy:
So it's a great point. And also back to your prior point — vision is a huge part of it. How that sensor works, how you know where the part is in space, how you know where the robot is in space. Tying it all together. The digital twin example that we follow, really making the real world and the digital world come together to solve that problem. So I'm not sure if I answered your question there.

Jimmy Carroll:
I just think of different things like tech advancements. Like it's not just robots getting stronger or easier to use, but it's things like vision. And then it's things like industrial computing with more powerful GPUs that are smaller and more capable. Everything kind of pushes these capabilities forward.

Winn Hardin:
Which simplifies the calibration and the alignment of those three different coordinate spaces: the vision, the robotic, and the real world.

Simon Kenworthy:
Yeah, absolutely. And the ability to calibrate and rapidly calibrate, to know exactly where you are. That vision aspect of it. And then the data that we pull from the system for SPC and tracking and MES integration, things like that. It's all part of that model. As everything advances, we can't stand still. We've got to keep advancing.

Winn Hardin:
Has training become less of a cost center and more of a differentiator for you guys? How serious is your company about approaching that?

Simon Kenworthy:
Extremely serious about training. We have a couple of facilities where we have dedicated training labs where the customers can get right onto the robot. They get the robot controller in their hand. We teach them how to recover from issues, how to do basic programming. We'll teach them how to do advanced programming, or we'll come and do the programming for them. So that aspect of it is super important. And being able to give customers hands on, on a real robot, in the lab-based environment with a captive audience, that's a huge advantage to get them up the learning curve.

Winn Hardin:
Are you starting to push those things online too, or is it just pretty much still in person at your centers of excellence.

Simon Kenworthy:
It's still in person? There's a safety aspect to it.

Winn Hardin:
Especially when robots are involved.

Simon Kenworthy:
Exactly. And we do have some development on collaborative robots, but we're mainly industrial robots right now.

Winn Hardin:
Do you think simulators will change that?

Simon Kenworthy:
Absolutely, absolutely. So that whole digital twinning thing that I talked about and the ability to really predict where the robot is in space, where the part is in space, and tying those two together, simulations are a huge part of it. And it's not just tied to the robot aspect. It's the whole system.

Winn Hardin:
Oh, absolutely. I mean, your tool sets are pretty complex items, whether it's water jet, laser.

Simon Kenworthy:
Yeah, and we join those islands of automation together with material handling, more and more material handling. Another part of the labor shortage has been able to load a process cell and unload that process cell with robotics and automation conveyance. We look at debugging that whole system, the PLC debug and simulation, to make sure we don't have to do that problem in the field or deal with that problem in the field, which obviously prevents burnout from our guys. If we leave them out in the field for too long, it's detrimental to their work–life balance.

Winn Hardin:
Support technicians can rack up the miles pretty good. But if they're not, then that's a blessing. That means, you're able to remotely monitor. You've got strong systems.

Simon Kenworthy:
So that's a great point. We have a 24-hour hotline, dedicated hotline. We have a team of staff that monitor that hotline and can give real-time response. We respond within 15 minutes. That's kind of a driver from the automotive days, but we apply that across our products.

Jimmy Carroll:
Yeah. I mean between training and that hotline, you're really helping to minimize downtime through knowledge it sounds like.

Simon Kenworthy:
And this business forum, the A3 Business Forum, we're connecting with people here who have some really sophisticated tools that allow you to do just that, to run the robot with a camera right there and you can move the system around safely. And so there's been some great connections at this forum.

Winn Hardin:
Always, this is one of the best shows, one of the things I enjoy the most. I ask that question a lot of folks: Are we taking the simulators, are we pushing them online, are we making them available? Because I think our whole industry is just like everyone else. We don't have enough engineers, qualified folks. So we point to the educational system and say we need more machine vision, more AI, more motion control coursework, and educational programs. And it's happening at the grassroots level too. So we've got academia doing a little bit. A lot of companies like Shape are also making that training available and pushing upwards. You got folks like ourselves and the people who are trying to share the information with the public just to create more visibility about what's possible and what can be done, maybe entice some of those kids and then, of course, there's the last day of Automate when the school buses line up there at Automate.

Simon Kenworthy:
And we love that. It's a great point. We talk a lot about what our systems do and what our companies do, but it's all about our people. Focusing on those people and our communities. We really focus on our community and we focus on our local schools and high schools and colleges to make sure that they're dialed in because they're the next generation of robot programmers, equipment engineers, tooling engineers, installation engineers, painters, fabricators, machinists, that type of thing. So super-important.

Winn Hardin:
People that make the world run. Absolutely.

Simon Kenworthy:
We're watching humanoid robots in there. But I think we're quite a bit away from that.

Winn Hardin:
I agree. They're great to watch. I mean, it's some of my favorite YouTube videos, especially the outtakes.

Jimmy Carroll:
The Boston Dynamics Atlas doing flips and dancing, and it's all very cool.

Winn Hardin:
It is very cool. And the outtakes from that are even cooler.

Jimmy Carroll:
Simon, what else? What haven't we asked about that you guys are particularly excited about?

Simon Kenworthy:
So obviously going through a pandemic drove a mega-trend in automation, but it crippled some businesses. For example, the aerospace business was really hit hard. No new major airframe programs going on.

Winn Hardin:
Lots of bad news.

Simon Kenworthy:
Lots of bad news, lots of low passenger numbers. But that's bounced back dramatically in the last 24, 18, 24 months, and the aerospace business has really been hit super hard. What we are seeing, and part of our business, we manufacture systems for maintenance, repair, and overhaul. So we use our high-pressure water jet technology to remove abradable coatings, carbon, seals, that type of thing. So they rework those components, put them back in the engine. You may be familiar with the Leap engine, which is on the Airbus, the Boeing, and the COMAC airframes.

Simon Kenworthy:
Same engine but on three different platforms. It's the new engine program with some super-cool new materials in there. The MRO activities are now coming into place to deal with that engine as it goes live. So we've really seen a huge influx of inquiries and equipment requests for the MRO business. And that's not just in North America. It's in Europe, it's in Asia, particularly strong in Asia right now.

Winn Hardin:
I find that very interesting because when I think of robots in MRO, typically it's been, get the old paint off, get it on, so it's a more efficient airframe and things like that. Obviously the robots in automation are used in the manufacture of individual components, especially the metal pieces, polishing, and everything else. But then to do it on the refurbishing side, I really was ignorant of all that. And I've learned a lot this week about that part of aerospace. So is the MRO market potentially as big as the general manufacturing in aerospace or massively smaller?

Simon Kenworthy:
It's massively smaller than airframe, but it's an integral part of the business. Those parts are recyclable, reusable. I use the word "recyclable." We use a very specific technology. Some is processor record, where we use high-pressure water. Others they use chemicals. So the chemical is extremely aggressive. It's bad for the environment. So there is also a trend to move away from that. We use the high-pressure water. We move carbon. Like I said, we move these plasma coat type materials, but we recover that 100%. We recycle the water. So it goes back into the system as clean water again. So extremely environmentally friendly.

Winn Hardin:
Just filter out the junk and don't add anything more negative to it. I was surprised because there's such a larger base of aircraft out there moving, that need regular MRO, versus how many we're rolling off the lines new every year. So that was kind of where I was coming at, where it was potentially a larger market.

Simon Kenworthy:
I think Leap is something like 2,000 engine sets per year, which is huge.

Winn Hardin:
This is on the MRO side or brand new going into market?

Simon Kenworthy:
New. But of course everything that goes in has to be on a maintenance cycle. So the newer materials and newer engines have longer cycles between repair, but they still need to be repaired. And that's not something you do overnight. You've got to set your process up and get your process right, be Nadcap-ready in terms of traceability and things like that. So we prepare. The system's ready so that our customers can do that.

Winn Hardin:
What's the current interval recommended in North America and Europe?

Simon Kenworthy:
Great question and I don't know the answer.

Winn Hardin:
I'm sure it's different depending what engine you're looking at. Different frames. It's different from usage probably.

Simon Kenworthy:
From plane to plane. But yeah. It's several thousand hours. There's a huge amount of big data out there that tells you all that stuff. I don't have the answer to that.

Winn Hardin:
All right. Well, I'll have to read on my own. Thanks, Simon.

Simon Kenworthy:
I'll email you.

Winn Hardin:
That'll work.

Jimmy Carroll:
Simon, thanks so much for taking the time. If people want to learn more about Shape Process Automation, what's the website they should visit?

Simon Kenworthy:
ShapeProcessAutomation.com. You can look on LinkedIn and find me, Simon Kenworthy. I'm out there. Look on LinkedIn for Shape Process Automation. We're out there. So pretty easy to find. And then you'll see all our different segments of business that we're involved with.

Winn Hardin:
Outstanding.

Jimmy Carroll:
Well, I really want to thank you for your time. I appreciate it. It's been a pleasure talking to you.

Simon Kenworthy:
Thanks very much, guys. Thank you.

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Jimmy Carroll: [00:00:07] Hi, everybody. My name is Jimmy Carroll. I’m the vice president of operations at Tech B2B Marketing, and we’re here for the Manufacturing Matters podcast. I have the pleasure of being joined by Simon Kenworthy and my colleague Winn Hardin. Simon, thanks so much for taking the time with us today. I really appreciate it.

Simon Kenworthy: [00:00:21] My pleasure, Jimmy. Nice to meet you guys.

Jimmy Carroll: [00:00:23] Thank you. So Shape Process Automation. For those who don’t know about the company, could you tell us about what you guys do and what you do there?

Simon Kenworthy: [00:00:30] Absolutely, yes. So Shape Process Automation, part of the Shape Technologies Group, a larger group focused very much on the trimming and cutting of materials, material handling, amongst many other things that we do in the business. I’m responsible for operations in North America. So I’m managing director of Shape Process Automation North America. What do we do? We got a couple of facilities in North America, one in Auburn Hills, one in Burlington, Ontario, and we focus very much on adding process to customers’ materials, whether that’s in the automotive, whether it’s in food, whether it’s in aerospace, whether it’s in the GI space, whether it’s in the EV or light-weighting space, which is the new trend in automotive. And we apply process to that. So some people call us an integrator. Maybe we’re not an integrator, but we have “process” in our name for a reason because we apply that process. So a little bit more than just bolting islands of automation together and coming up with solutions.

Jimmy Carroll: [00:01:37] So we talked about a few different application areas there. And so you work across different areas. Are you seeing any particular notable advancements in certain spaces, like food production, for example?

Simon Kenworthy: [00:01:49] For sure, and maybe rewind a little bit back. We really cut our teeth in the automotive industry, in the soft trim automotive industry. First, implementation of robotics with high-pressure water jets, which is part of the Shape Technologies Group. We have the KMT and the Flow brands and the H2O brands, which are the market leaders in ultra-high-pressure technology. So we use that technology to trim headliners, car carpets, wheel well liners, that type of thing. So we really cut our teeth in that. And for the last 50 years, that’s what we’ve done. It’s still a really key part of our business. But we made the decision back about four years ago to not be so reliant on the waves that come through this automotive industry. We still have deep roots in aerospace, areas like EV, light-weighting. So these new dynamic materials that are very strong but very light that go into vehicles, like boron, steel, carbon fiber, things like that. But really looking at food, which was a real change for the industry. Everything was done manually, assembling sandwiches and things like that, using app automation and robotics to really improve that process and deal with the issues in labor, a huge dearth in labor. We heard this morning there’s a little over 8.5 million open positions, not just in the food industry but just in the general U.S. Market. So we looked at ways that we could apply that, and we’re really specific and focused on how we did that.

Winn Hardin: [00:03:26] So even though we’re seeing a little dip. We saw earlier today some presentations, folks were talking about, you’re seeing a small dip in the food manufacturing. It’s really not clear whether that’s food generation, processing, packaging necessarily. I’m guessing it’s probably across the whole board. It’s some softness.

Simon Kenworthy: [00:03:44] It’s a myriad of different areas of business inside food. We’re very much focused on prepared foods. It’s something that’s become more prevalent. We heard the Jimmy Dean sandwiches, and believe it or not, those are assembled now by robots. A series of Delta robots put in the bread, put the protein in there, putting the cheese, the egg, the whole thing, all automated. Whereas before you’d have 16 people to what is now one robot putting those sandwiches together. So huge volumes. They’re looking for consistency, just like we do in any other business, and reliability and reduction in rework or scrap, in this case scrap sandwiches. 

Winn Hardin: [00:04:34] Better than scrap metal. 

Simon Kenworthy: [00:04:35] Much tastier.

Winn Hardin: [00:04:37] Exactly.

Simon Kenworthy: [00:04:38] It’s interesting how that’s become more reliant on that type of thing. So I’m not sure whether the dips and falls really come. But prepared foods is obviously a huge growth node.

Winn Hardin: [00:04:50] So how was that business segment doing the last few years, COVID and post?

Simon Kenworthy: [00:04:56] So pre-COVID was very much manual. But then the challenges that came with the labor, nonavailability of labor or people moving on, the huge churn in labor. I think some of the bigger players in that industry really had an automation journey mapped out and began to invest heavily in that process. We see it not just in those sandwiches but in pork bellies and bacon and all different kinds of products like that. 

Winn Hardin: [00:05:24] So is that investment continuing or are we going to take a little pause? It sounds like we’re hearing the same thing from warehousing a little bit. And we all know the logistics and warehousing went through the roof prior to COVID, which was only exacerbated during COVID times. So is the market kind of taking a breath or do you think it’s in that softness or is it cyclical to a certain extent, or is it people who are still focused on the macroeconomic, waiting for that shoe to drop?

Simon Kenworthy: [00:05:55] I’m not sure it’s waiting for the shoe to drop. It was such a mega-trend in terms of the adoption of robotics and automation that there’s only so much you can do in the food industry in a certain period of time. So we saw, like we said, ’21, post-COVID, ’22, huge growth in that business for integrators and people like ourselves, and those customers only have so much bandwidth to be able to do that. So they go through the automation, the concept of the automation, the implementation, and then they’ve also got to make money with that product. And take a breath and then move on their next step. So most of those large OEMs and the food business have an automation road map, a journey, and kind of have that figured out. So yeah, a little bit of a pause in ’23. Expect to see it coming back in ’24 again. And we’re already seeing the signs of that in our business.

Winn Hardin: [00:06:51] Good. Hoping that’s a continuing trend.

Simon Kenworthy: [00:06:53] Yeah absolutely. It’s got to be.

Jimmy Carroll: [00:06:57] On that note of continuing trends, one of the things you brought up I wanted to ask about was EV manufacturing, which is fairly new. And things are changing there. So the automation industry kind of had to adapt to some of these processes, like battery cell production and EVs. And are you noticing other processes and customer needs that have required you guys to make really unique changes or leverage new technologies, this kind of thing?

Simon Kenworthy: [00:07:25] Yeah, it’s a diverse business. So I talked a little bit about soft trim. That doesn’t really change whether it’s ICE or EV. They need interiors for vehicles and exterior panels, but in terms of battery tray manufacture, a battery assembly, there’s been a huge growth through that business. Not sure how that’s going to continue to grow because of the infrastructure restrictions, etc. That’s really a 10-, 15-year . . . 

Winn Hardin: [00:07:52] Choking the market a little bit.

Simon Kenworthy: [00:07:53] Exactly. Everybody would love to drive an EV, I’m sure, but we’ve got to have the infrastructure to support that. So what does that look like? We still have to be economical in terms of the way the vehicles perform. So we need to use these lightweight materials. So there’s still a drive to deal with these new materials and apply new technology, whether that be laser, whether that be high-speed machining, whatever it is. There’s also a trend towards these new giga-castings, these large castings, which will obviously become prevalent going away from real big heavy stampings to lightweight materials, lightweight modules that can be bolted together, automated in terms of manufacturing and assembly. So those trends are growing.

Winn Hardin: [00:08:37] Is that primarily in heavy equipment or is that in automotive as well?

Simon Kenworthy: [00:08:40] Well, it’s certainly in automotive and it’s somewhat in heavy equipment, but more so in automotive, where they have these platforms, these modules that they want to build the different vehicle frames on. 

Winn Hardin: [00:08:53] Kind of a unibody, or not a unibody per se from the traditional sense, but just a more modular approach, more interchangeability.

Simon Kenworthy: [00:09:00] Kind of like the skateboard model, right? The battery is considered a skateboard, and then we stick everything else on top of that.

Winn Hardin: [00:09:07] And so when light-weighting are you talking aluminum, carbon fiber? What exactly?

Simon Kenworthy: [00:09:12] We’re talking aluminum. We’re talking carbon fiber. We’re also talking boron steel. So these ultra-high-strength steels that are hot stamped. So they’re formed with a high temperature. They’re significantly thinner than regular carbon steel but significantly stronger. So that comes with a nuance that you can’t drill or punch it. You have to laser cut it. So we have to build these complex systems that will drill features, put in slots, trim off the excess materials very repeatedly, very fast, in less than two minutes per side of the vehicle, for example. So extremely fast,  high volumes but flexible volumes. That’s the other thing with the EV market. It’s not like, when one of the Big Three say, We’re going to make 500,000 vehicles a year, it’s going to be this form, and we’ll set up the line to do that. The trend we’re seeing now is those volumes are changing, the smaller runs or smaller volumes per year, but different volumes per year. So the automation needs to be flexible. It needs to be able to be easily deployed. It needs to be able to be built fast, installed fast, programmed fast. So we’re kind of saying right now that we need to automate our automation. What I mean by that is we need to figure out how we program things easier and we become less reliant on robot programmers. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but so we can respond faster. 

Winn Hardin: [00:10:39] Plus there’s just not enough of them around right now. I mean, the ease-of-use thing is something . . . every single company and every single person we talk to, they’re always talking about ease of use. And I always say, Let’s peel back that onion a little bit, because it’s like AI to a certain extent. It’s a great tool. It has real value. But sometimes the hype overextends the delivery of the promise. So ease of use. How do you guys tackle that? I mean is that just about more simplified? Is it primarily done in the software space, other areas, training, more personal handholding, leveraging distribution channels?

Simon Kenworthy: [00:11:15] There’s a little bit of all that. But it’s certainly in the software space. Definitely in the training space, so the more we can do offline and really get to CAD-to-part, the better that process is for the customer. Because we know that vehicles change. There’s upgrades. There’s also small changes made through the daily manufacturing process they need to cope and deal with. So we provide software and tools to be able to do that, and we continue to invest in that type of development so that we make it easier not only for the customer but for also our team during that process and that support process.

Jimmy Carroll: [00:11:53] From a component standpoint, these individual technologies that you’re leveraging in a lot of your systems, whether it’s robots or machine vision or motion control or software, there’s been a lot of advancements, obviously, and there will continue to be, and that’s an obvious thing, but how have recent advancements in some of these components kind of pushed your capabilities forward?

Simon Kenworthy: [00:12:14] So it’s a great point. And also back to your prior point — vision is a huge part of it. How that sensor works, how you know where the part is in space, how you know where the robot is in space. Tying it all together. The digital twin example that we follow, really making the real world and the digital world come together to solve that problem. So I’m not sure if I answered your question there.

Jimmy Carroll: [00:12:41] I just think of different things like tech advancements. Like it’s not just robots getting stronger or easier to use, but it’s things like vision. And then it’s things like industrial computing with more powerful GPUs that are smaller and more capable. Everything kind of pushes these capabilities forward. 

Winn Hardin: [00:13:01] Which simplifies the calibration and the alignment of those three different coordinate spaces: the vision, the robotic, and the real world.

Simon Kenworthy: [00:13:07] Yeah, absolutely. And the ability to calibrate and rapidly calibrate, to know exactly where you are. That vision aspect of it. And then the data that we pull from the system for SPC and tracking and MES integration, things like that. It’s all part of that model. As everything advances, we can’t stand still. We’ve got to keep advancing. 

Winn Hardin: [00:13:31] Has training become less of a cost center and more of a differentiator for you guys? How serious is your company about approaching that?

Simon Kenworthy: [00:13:37] Extremely serious about training. We have a couple of facilities where we have dedicated training labs where the customers can get right onto the robot. They get the robot controller in their hand. We teach them how to recover from issues, how to do basic programming. We’ll teach them how to do advanced programming, or we’ll come and do the programming for them. So that aspect of it is super important. And being able to give customers hands on, on a real robot, in the lab-based environment with a captive audience, that’s a huge advantage to get them up the learning curve. 

Winn Hardin: [00:14:14] Are you starting to push those things online too, or is it just pretty much still in person at your centers of excellence.

Simon Kenworthy: [00:14:19] It’s still in person? There’s a safety aspect to it. 

Winn Hardin: [00:14:24] Especially when robots are involved.

Simon Kenworthy: [00:14:25] Exactly. And we do have some development on collaborative robots, but we’re mainly industrial robots right now.

Winn Hardin: [00:14:34] Do you think simulators will change that?

Simon Kenworthy: [00:14:36] Absolutely, absolutely. So that whole digital twinning thing that I talked about and the ability to really predict where the robot is in space, where the part is in space, and tying those two together, simulations are a huge part of it. And it’s not just tied to the robot aspect. It’s the whole system.

Winn Hardin: [00:14:53] Oh, absolutely. I mean, your tool sets are pretty complex items, whether it’s water jet, laser.

Simon Kenworthy: [00:14:57] Yeah, and we join those islands of automation together with material handling, more and more material handling. Another part of the labor shortage has been able to load a process cell and unload that process cell with robotics and automation conveyance. We look at debugging that whole system, the PLC debug and simulation, to make sure we don’t have to do that problem in the field or deal with that problem in the field, which obviously prevents burnout from our guys. If we leave them out in the field for too long, it’s detrimental to their work–life balance. 

Winn Hardin: [00:15:35] Support technicians can rack up the miles pretty good. But if they’re not, then that’s a blessing. That means, you’re able to remotely monitor. You’ve got strong systems. 

Simon Kenworthy: [00:15:47] So that’s a great point. We have a 24-hour hotline, dedicated hotline. We have a team of staff that monitor that hotline and can give real-time response. We respond within 15 minutes. That’s kind of a driver from the automotive days, but we apply that across our products.

Jimmy Carroll: [00:16:05] Yeah. I mean between training and that hotline, you’re really helping to minimize downtime through knowledge it sounds like.

Simon Kenworthy: [00:16:13] And this business forum, the A3 Business Forum, we’re connecting with people here who have some really sophisticated tools that allow you to do just that, to run the robot with a camera right there and you can move the system around safely. And so there’s been some great connections at this forum.

Winn Hardin: [00:16:32] Always, this is one of the best shows, one of the things I enjoy the most. I ask that question a lot of folks: Are we taking the simulators, are we pushing them online, are we making them available? Because I think our whole industry is just like everyone else. We don’t have enough engineers, qualified folks. So we point to the educational system and say we need more machine vision, more AI, more motion control coursework, and educational programs. And it’s happening at the grassroots level too. So we’ve got academia doing a little bit. A lot of companies like Shape are also making that training available and pushing upwards. You got folks like ourselves and the people who are trying to share the information with the public just to create more visibility about what’s possible and what can be done, maybe entice some of those kids and then, of course, there’s the last day of Automate when the school buses line up there at Automate.

Simon Kenworthy: [00:17:28] And we love that. It’s a great point. We talk a lot about what our systems do and what our companies do, but it’s all about our people. Focusing on those people and our communities. We really focus on our community and we focus on our local schools and high schools and colleges to make sure that they’re dialed in because they’re the next generation of robot programmers, equipment engineers, tooling engineers, installation engineers, painters, fabricators, machinists, that type of thing. So super-important.

Winn Hardin: [00:18:00] People that make the world run. Absolutely.

Simon Kenworthy: [00:18:03] We’re watching humanoid robots in there. But I think we’re quite a bit away from that.

Winn Hardin: [00:18:08] I agree. They’re great to watch. I mean, it’s some of my favorite YouTube videos, especially the outtakes. 

Jimmy Carroll: [00:18:14] The Boston Dynamics Atlas doing flips and dancing, and it’s all very cool.

Winn Hardin: [00:18:19] It is very cool. And the outtakes from that are even cooler. 

Jimmy Carroll: [00:18:25] Simon, what else? What haven’t we asked about that you guys are particularly excited about? 

Simon Kenworthy: [00:18:30] So obviously going through a pandemic drove a mega-trend in automation, but it crippled some businesses. For example, the aerospace business was really hit hard. No new major airframe programs going on.

Winn Hardin: [00:18:46] Lots of bad news.

Simon Kenworthy: [00:18:47] Lots of bad news, lots of low passenger numbers. But that’s bounced back dramatically in the last 24, 18, 24 months, and the aerospace business has really been hit super hard. What we are seeing, and part of our business, we manufacture systems for maintenance, repair, and overhaul. So we use our high-pressure water jet technology to remove abradable coatings, carbon, seals, that type of thing. So they rework those components, put them back in the engine. You may be familiar with the Leap engine, which is on the Airbus, the Boeing, and the COMAC airframes.

Simon Kenworthy: [00:19:26] Same engine but on three different platforms. It’s the new engine program with some super-cool new materials in there. The MRO activities are now coming into place to deal with that engine as it goes live. So we’ve really seen a huge influx of inquiries and equipment requests for the MRO business. And that’s not just in North America. It’s in Europe, it’s in Asia, particularly strong in Asia right now.

Winn Hardin: [00:19:54] I find that very interesting because when I think of robots in MRO, typically it’s been, get the old paint off, get it on, so it’s a more efficient airframe and things like that. Obviously the robots in automation are used in the manufacture of individual components, especially the metal pieces, polishing, and everything else. But then to do it on the refurbishing side, I really was ignorant of all that. And I’ve learned a lot this week about that part of aerospace. So is the MRO market potentially as big as the general manufacturing in aerospace or massively smaller?

Simon Kenworthy: [00:20:31] It’s massively smaller than airframe, but it’s an integral part of the business. Those parts are recyclable, reusable. I use the word “recyclable.” We use a very specific technology. Some is processor record, where we use high-pressure water. Others they use chemicals. So the chemical is extremely aggressive. It’s bad for the environment. So there is also a trend to move away from that. We use the high-pressure water. We move carbon. Like I said, we move these plasma coat type materials, but we recover that 100%. We recycle the water. So it goes back into the system as clean water again. So extremely environmentally friendly.

Winn Hardin: [00:21:16] Just filter out the junk and don’t add anything more negative to it. I was surprised because there’s such a larger base of aircraft out there moving, that need regular MRO, versus how many we’re rolling off the lines new every year. So that was kind of where I was coming at, where it was potentially a larger market.

Simon Kenworthy: [00:21:33] I think Leap is something like 2,000 engine sets per year, which is huge.

Winn Hardin: [00:21:39] This is on the MRO side or brand new going into market?

Simon Kenworthy: [00:21:42] New. But of course everything that goes in has to be on a maintenance cycle. So the newer materials and newer engines have longer cycles between repair, but they still need to be repaired. And that’s not something you do overnight. You’ve got to set your process up and get your process right, be Nadcap-ready in terms of traceability and things like that. So we prepare. The system’s ready so that our customers can do that.

Winn Hardin: [00:22:06] What’s the current interval recommended in North America and Europe?

Simon Kenworthy: [00:22:09] Great question and I don’t know the answer.

Winn Hardin: [00:22:11] I’m sure it’s different depending what engine you’re looking at. Different frames. It’s different from usage probably.

Simon Kenworthy: [00:22:15] From plane to plane. But yeah. It’s several thousand hours. There’s a huge amount of big data out there that tells you all that stuff. I don’t have the answer to that.

Winn Hardin: [00:22:23] All right. Well, I’ll have to read on my own. Thanks, Simon.

Simon Kenworthy: [00:22:27] I’ll email you. 

Winn Hardin: [00:22:29] That’ll work.

Jimmy Carroll: [00:22:30] Simon, thanks so much for taking the time. If people want to learn more about Shape Process Automation, what’s the website they should visit?

Simon Kenworthy: [00:22:37] ShapeProcessAutomation.com. You can look on LinkedIn and find me, Simon Kenworthy. I’m out there. Look on LinkedIn for Shape Process Automation. We’re out there. So pretty easy to find. And then you’ll see all our different segments of business that we’re involved with.

Winn Hardin: [00:22:52] Outstanding. 

Jimmy Carroll: [00:22:53] Well, I really want to thank you for your time. I appreciate it. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. 

Simon Kenworthy: [00:22:57] Thanks very much, guys. Thank you.