Zeeland, Mich. — YuMi the two-armed robot can be found on YouTube delighting viewers by folding paper airplanes, playing "Simon Says" with a technician, mixing drinks, and even cooking pancakes.
But now, YuMi is migrating from YouTube videos to the auto industry's factory floor.
At Gentex Corp., engineers are testing a YuMi to help make mirrors. The robot will load plastic parts into a plasma oven to remove impurities from the molding process, according to company spokesman Craig Piersma.
Gentex, which employs 4,000 in its Zeeland plant and is the industry's leading producer of electro-chromic mirrors, is counting heavily on automation to compete with rivals in Mexico, China and elsewhere.
Robots have been a common fixture in auto plants for decades, performing grungy and dangerous jobs. But YuMi, designed by ABB Robotics, represents a new wave of robotics hitting the industry. The new machines are collaborative robots — designed to work in close proximity to humans without a protective metal cage or plastic shield.
That new flexibility in how and where they can work in a manufacturing setting — coupled with lower costs and easier programming — is setting the stage for parts suppliers to embrace the technology. And such an industry shift could have long-term implications for the U.S. auto manufacturing sector's ability to generate job growth as it has in the past.
Gentex is relying on robots as it reshores production to the U.S.
In recent years, Gentex closed its two foreign plants in low-wage Mexico and China and consolidated all production into a single factory complex in western Michigan. The Zeeland plant now produces self-dimming mirrors, garage door openers and everything else in the Gentex product catalog for global markets.
Factory automation is what made it possible for Gentex to move production from overseas to the Midwest.
"It's a tricky product," says Steve Downing, Gentex Chief Financial Officer, as he inspects the company's 2-year-old assembly line that makes one of the industry's most advanced rearview mirrors. "Any scratches or smudges, or even the shipping, can damage these mirrors. Cleanliness is key."
This is the sort of business model the new president is pressing manufacturers to adopt. But Gentex designed its plan not for political reasons, but for purely competitive ones as its products become more complex. And for champions of the push to create U.S. automotive jobs, Gentex has sobering news: Making modern car parts in America today is going to take a whole lot of robots.