Warrendale, Pa. — French robot company Sepro Group plans to start U.S. assembly in January 2018, and to handle that, the company is expanding into an adjacent space at Sepro America LLC in Warrendale, outside of Pittsburgh.
Loic Legendre, Sepro America's vice president of service who is handling the expansion, said the extra 11,000 square feet of space more than doubles the operation's shop-floor area. Currently, Sepro America has a total of 16,500 square feet of leased space in an industrial building, with 9,000 square feet of that for production.
Sepro Group is based in La Roche-sur-Yon, France.
“The idea is to do some sub-assembly in the south of France, as we have been doing so far, and afterwards to do the final assembly here,” said Jean-Michel Renaudeau, managing director. U.S. assembly also will include setting up work cells around the robot, in the additional space, he said.
Sepro officials made the comments July 20 at a news conference at an event marking the 10-year anniversary of Sepro America. Renaudeau said the United States is the robot maker's largest market, having shipped 541 robots last year.
“Sepro America has done a great job, and this is our first market,” he said. “We have still a huge potential, because we enjoy 25 percent market share in 2016 [in the United States].” The goal, he said, is to surpass 30 percent.
When the French company started Sepro America in 2008, the U.S. market share was 9 percent. Sepro Group had previously had a long-standing distribution relationship with auxiliary equipment maker Conair Group, then formed a 50/50 joint venture, before buying out Conair and creating a wholly owned U.S. company. Veteran executives of Sepro America include Jim Healy, vice president of sales and marketing, and Bill Geddis, vice president of sales and automation, both of whom have sold Sepro robots for more than two decades.
Renaudeau said Sepro sold about 800 robots in all of North America last year. Mexico is a fast-growing market for Sepro's large robots because of all the automotive activity.
Sepro America will play a key role in supplying North America, and maybe even broader regions, he said.
“We have a lot of big robots being sold in Mexico. Why should I supply Mexico from France? Whereas you have, in fact here, the possibility to supply Mexico from Pittsburgh,” Renaudeau said. “And then, of course, with the same advantage, we globalize the flow from France to the U.S. and then we've got a hub — like an airport. From Pittsburgh, we can go anywhere, to Canada, to the U.S. and to Mexico. And why not to South America? We are also studying that.”
Sepro will still supply some large robots from France, but it makes sense to do final assembly in Warrendale, Renaudeau said. The goal would be to assemble about 30 to 40 robots in Warrendale in 2018, he said. That would ramp to about 100 robots in 2019.
Renaudeau said the U.S.-assembled equipment will be larger robots, for use with injection molding machines with clamping forces of 700 tons and higher—the company's of Strong, S7 and 7X robots.
The quality must be the same as in France, Renaudeau said. Sepro leaders will look to sourcing some components from the United States, such as the beams, he said. Beams for the large robots can measure 5 or 10 meters long, so it could sense to buy them locally.
Another option, Renaudeau said, would be to ship a bunch of beams all in one container, from France to Warrendale. Currently, he said, Sepro normally ships one completed robot in one shipping container.
Sepro America has been handling sales and service, now employing 36 people. Legendre said the company plans to hire two more people initially for next year's production launch.
Legendre said Sepro has an installed base of around 6,000 robots in North America.
For several years, Sepro has been working with Carnegie Mellon University's robotics program in Pittsburgh. David Alan Bourne, robotics director at the Rapid Manufacturing Lab, said the team started out thinking of a new way to program robots.
“And we talked to Sepro's customers, and they were perfectly happy with how the robots were programed, to be honest. So they didn't really need a newfangled approach to programming. But what they did want is some idea of how to control downtime,” he said.
That is the focus of the partnership — using sensors to measure things like vibration, and looking at Sepro's records of spare parts and service, broken out geographically Bourne said. Sepro robots are designed to last a long time, but any mechanical device eventually will run into problems, he said.
“It's just like your car. … Really the idea is to get it before you're ‘stuck on the highway,' to use the car example,” he said.