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Factory Automation

Will robots take over the hot tub industry?

A popular theme in science-fiction narratives is the prediction that machines, robots, smartphones and computers will one day take over and rule the human race. Even renowned British physicist, cosmologist and author Stephen Hawking has repeatedly warned this theory could become reality in the next 100 years thanks to artificial intelligence, or AI.

Whether zeitgeist or folly, AI has allowed manufacturers within the hot tub industry (and other business segments) the power to harness technology as a tool for increased efficiency, productivity, precision, and cost-effective (and often healthier for humans) factory operation. SPOILER ALERT: For those of you with a sci-fi proclivity, in this article the humans remain overlords to the machines!

For 60 years or more, the media and Hollywood have cast a dark shadow over automation. Look at how often we’ve been exposed to news stories about people being jettisoned by their employers due to computer automation. But for every one of those stories, there are many with other endings. That’s because technology in manufacturing has often assisted employees while simultaneously providing benefits across the business landscape. That’s the case at Core Covers, says co-owner Jerry Greer.

“We’re a bit unique in that we started the company with the belief of leveraging technology as much as possible,” Greer says, adding that he credits his partner, Robert Ghelerter, with the foresight to do that. “One hundred percent of our raw product is cut by automated machinery,” Greer says, which gives it a small scrap rate on fabric and foam. It’s far more efficient than the most skilled human fabric cutter, he says: “Computer technology helps us to optimize the use of raw products and reduce costs. It’s also had a big impact on consistency and quality. Because fabric is being cut from a CAD file, we get very reliable material going into our product line. It’s virtually impossible for a cover not to come out to spec.”

Mary Villegas is vice president of operations at filter cartridge manufacturer Pleatco. She says the marriage of technology and manufacturing is a part of life at the company and provides uncompromising quality. “We try to capitalize on improvements available in equipment to generate a more consistent, quality product to satisfy our customers,” Villegas says. “Our goal as a company is to provide the best possible filter cartridge and DE-grid available, by integrating new technology. In recent years, we’ve made a huge capital investment in our pleaters; as you know, the filtration fabric is really at the heart and soul of a filter cartridge. The technology we invested in for our pleating machines allow us to hone in and create a precise, quality-conscious pleat and ensure customers that the specifications and quality of our product is perfectly executed during the pleating process.”

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Does that mean technology leans toward quality? Villegas offers an enthusiastic yes. “Pleatco’s mantra is constant improvement; we’re primarily focused on quality and secondarily on efficiency,” Villegas says. “We’re consciously focused on effectiveness, including the turnaround or lead time on customer orders, with an internal balance on the quality of the product being shipped.”

Greer says while quality is the juggernaut of how it utilizes manufacturing technology at Core Covers, it also helps the company use its workforce. “Technology allows us to train and integrate personnel into the manufacturing process,” he says, “so we’re not as reliant on an employee’s years of experience. They’re operating machinery rather than performing highly skilled jobs, which can take six years or more to develop.”

But that doesn’t mean manufacturing technology removes the need for labor-force efficacy, he cautions: There is still a large part of the process that requires highly trained, experienced personnel to achieve a consistently sewn product. “We can’t leverage technology completely, but we can (and do) utilize it to lower operational costs; improve efficiency and the quality of our covers,” Greer says.

Tracine Marroquin, vice president of marketing – product at Jacuzzi Hot Tubs explains how technology is applied in the manufacture of its Dimension One Spas product line and the impact on employees. When Jacuzzi acquired the D1 Spas product line in 2013, Jacuzzi obtained the equipment used in D1’s old factory, which included a robot that sprays a proprietary backing product on the back of the spa shell. “When you talk about manufacturing technology in our plant, the fact we use robotic spray for the reinforcement on the back of our acrylic shells would probably be the most visible thing you’d notice as you walk the factory,” Marroquin says. This technology, which it has used for years, is more efficient and provides a more accurate, consistent application than a human employee could, she adds. “And because that application is computer-driven and performed in an enclosed area,” she says, “it removes human exposure to the materials used in this step. That makes for a safer employee work environment.” Greer says using automation means the work place is better and safer, more pleasant. Plus, employees operating equipment puts less demand on their bodies, he says, so it’s reduced his employee turnover rate.

Back at the D1 Spas plant, Marroquin points to another advantage. “We use automated conveyers, so we can track the progress of a spa build electronically, via serial number, as it moves through the factory,” she says. “This really benefits us with our scheduling and planning as a spa goes through the build process and ultimately shipped.” The company has also used technology to improve its factory lighting, increasing energy efficiency and helping its quality-control inspectors.

It’s worth noting that no one said the integration of technology equated to speed in the manufacture of their respective products. Villegas says it can also make a bold statement: “When Howard Smith took over Pleatco, he looked internally at areas ripe for improvement to properly position us as a force in the global marketplace,” Villegas says. “When it came to an investment in technology, which was quite sizable for us, the decision to implement the best available technology was integral to our success across the board. As a result, the message sent internally to operations, manufacturing — and our outside customer base — was that quality was paramount at this company and that we were raising the quality standard on our entire product line. That’s why the decision was made to upgrade all of our pleating equipment simultaneously, not a piecemeal approach.”

Quality, not speed, is also the major benefit at Core Covers, but in considering the required capital outlay, Greer offers this advice: “In our case, the investment in technology has not accelerated the manufacture process,” he says. “That’s not the same for every manufacturer, and that reality can affect the rationale in deciding to make such a significant, upfront dollar investment; in our case, it was seven figures. For Core Covers, our return on investment is in long-term company benefits such as quality, plant safety, employee turnover and customer satisfaction.”

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Marroquin says more manufacturing technology is coming to D1 Spas in its production process, especially in the manufacture of the molds. “We watch outside industries closely for ideas we can adapt to spa manufacture, like ATVs, personal watercraft, things which are similar to spas in the manufacturing process.”

Science fiction and all its soothsayers who predict droids and robots will soon replace us all make for an amusing diversion — but remember, that’s entertainment. The world still demands the touch of human greatness on every product. Where technology in manufacturing is concerned, Greer says, “Everybody wins with manufacturing technology; employee, company and customer.”

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