Dutton Electric (DECO)
Robotics has revolutionized manufacturing, and companies say the trend will continue. For contractors serving those manufacturers, it’s a case of get on board or be left behind. Jeremy Abbott’s electrical contracting business has chosen the former approach.
DECO has a long history of partnering with Boeing Commercial Airplanes and the companies that supply Boeing’s Washington-based manufacturing facilities with parts and equipment. The Lynnwood, Washington-based electrical contractor has worked for industrial clients since 1987, but mid-2015, it started partnering with those clients in a new way.
At that time, one of DECO’s longtime clients, Electroimpact, asked DECO to help it build a 100-foot-long, 30-foot-tall, 40-foot-wide robot that would essentially 3D-print the wings on Boeing’s 777x airplanes. DECO worked closely with Electroimpact and helped the company’s engineers bring their vision and this new technology to life.
DECO hasn’t looked back. In 2017, it’s doubling down its investment in this area. It wants to be part of the massive effort to retool manufacturing with robotic equipment. While robotic manufacturing started as a niche, Abbott says it’s already mainstream, and DECO wants to stay head of the curve.
Automating aeronautic manufacturing
It’s no secret that Boeing is among many companies working to automate its manufacturing process. For Boeing, that’s driven by two factors: engineers have found a way to shape carbon fiber into various forms using 3D-printing, and advanced robotic technology has paved the way for automation. Now the aeronautical industry, like other industries, is looking to use carbon fiber—a lighter, stronger material than traditional aluminum—and to overhaul its production process by using robots to do everything from drilling holes and painting to installing and fastening bolts.
“Boeing is trying to build a plane much like Ford built the car, automating their assembly line,” Abbott says. “So the local companies like Electroimpact and Nova-Tech Engineering are building robots for Boeing, and we’re in their facilities helping them build their robots.”
Boeing isn’t the only company using these robots. Kawasaki, Airbus SAS, SpaceX and NASA are using them, too.
You can be replaced by robots, or you can help build the robots. Dutton Electric, or DECO, has opted for the latter.
For its part, DECO now wires complex programmable logic controllers, or PLCs, which have been compared to the heart of these robotic machines. PLCs are boxes of intricately placed wires that allow the massive machines to be highly nimble. Because they must slide from one end of a 100-foot machine to the other, the PLCs include flexible wiring and carefully laid cable tracks.
DECO works with clients like Electroimpact from the prototyping phase, when engineers are discovering what does and doesn’t work, through installation of the robots in manufacturing facilities.
“It’s a lot different than being handed a set of blueprints for a building and if anything changes it’s an RFI or a change order,” Abbott says. “There’s none of that. We’re just working shoulder-to-shoulder with these engineers and assisting them in inventing new stuff.”
Just like ‘Starship Enterprise’
One of the coolest machines DECO contributed to is a massive, multi-robot machine that Boeing uses to fasten the lower piece of the wing to the upper piece of the wing. That machine has eight bays, each 180-feet-long and 40-feet-high. Each bay has five autonomous robots that work in sync with one another, and each robot can independently depart from one bay and load itself into another bay.
“There’s just so many moving parts and automation and lights inside each bay,” Abbott says. “It’s like being inside the deck of a Starship Enterprise or something.”
Before, Abbott could drive past a bridge and point out which lights he’d installed. Now, when he travels with his family, he pauses to look at the stamp on the inside of airplane cockpit doors. Those stamps say where each plane was manufactured, and when they’re made in Washington, there’s a chance Abbott contributed to the plane’s construction.
An insider’s perspective
DECO was drawn into this niche when Electroimpact enlisted its services, but it didn’t take long for DECO to see the potential. Two or three years ago, DECO was on the outside looking in. It would see companies come into an industrial facility and install, for instance, a robot arm that could weld a door hinge.
“Now we’ve gotten in with those players who build those machines, and so now, we’re with those guys, so to speak, and it’s pretty awesome,” Abbott says.
To stay competitive, DECO has focused on building a crew that specializes in PLCs and ladder logic. It’s also had to look for employees with a flexible mindset. DECO’s employees have to be okay with building something that might need to be torn apart and reengineered before it’s complete.
“It does take a certain skillset—ladder diagrams and PLCs and troubleshooting—but it takes a certain soft skillset too, to be able to work in a different kind of team than you’re used to,” Abbott says.
Ahead of the trend, or behind it
There’s often apprehension among employees when DECO installs robots. Fair enough, he says: The robots DECO is installing at Boeing right now are expected to replace several thousand jobs, Abbott says.
That’s happening in all sectors. Abbott points to a future where taxi drivers could be displaced by self-driving cars and surgeons could be assisted by robots instead of doctors or nurses. While Abbot doesn’t see robots replacing electricians anytime soon, he admits you never know what could happen.
“You need to decide which side you’re going to be on, the side that gets displaced by the robots, or the side that’s building the robots,” he says.
DECO plans to continue working with the companies building the robots and to develop some custom PLC panels that it could offer those robot shops directly. It hopes to work with its existing partners and to work with players outside the aeronautical industry, too.
“I think you want to encourage that,” Abbott says. “Don’t fight it. You actually want to encourage it and find out how to incorporate that technology into what you’re doing or be on the supporting side of it because it ain’t going away.”
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