3 companies, 3 trends: This week’s mix of profiles tells a larger story of trends shaping California manufacturing

By Bart Taylor | Jun 11, 2018

Last week I was fortunate to attend the California Network of Manufacturing Innovation's conference, "Automation: The Next Generation of Lean," at The University of California, Irvine. Among the messages from industry professionals speaking at the event: Automation is coming, get ready or get left behind; the implementation "gap" between large and small-to-midsize companies is Grand Canyon-like, but cobots and other entry-level robots provide a short-path to automation; and robots are not displacing workers, but enabling companies to reallocate labor to value-added roles.

It's a key point, one echoed by owner Dave Kush in this week's Axis Robotics profile. "I've seen people in manufacturing making the same part for 30 years," he says. "When that repetitive task is automated, that same employee ends up learning how to program, run the robot, and oversee the process. In the end, they become more valuable to the company because they know what to do if there's a breakdown. If they leave, they also take with them experience that makes them more valuable in the job market."

As one conference panelist said, "We don't see a lot of jobs being lost to automation. We see a repurposing of labor into areas that are value-added to the company."

Even so, Axis' Kush also sees a challenge for him and for other technology "integrators." As ease of use improves and as the "interface" between robots and their human programmers becomes easier, integration firms will suffer. It was another theme at the CNMI event: When robots can program themselves, well, where does it end?

In Ventura, Swiss Productions GM Timo Lunceford is chasing opportunity by also investing in equipment -- in this case new machines to more precisely fabricate the parts and pieces for bioscience and medical device manufacturers. Lunceford is driving growth by being more precise in what he currently does, innovation that's enabling him to expand what he makes and assembles for key OEMs. "They're realizing that getting five components from us, then having to assemble it themselves, is costing more than having us just ship them the completed part," he explains.

It's a trend we see in California manufacturing: Technology, processes, and OEM interest in retooling a domestic supply-chain are leading to a heightened competitive capability in the sector.

Finally, the seismic California cannabis manufacturing sector is transforming at a rate that will be viewed as no less than astonishing when we look back. Those who are not paying attention to the entrepreneurship and science now informing the sector may wish they had.

Dr. Jeffrey Raber's The Werc Shop has already pivoted from testing lab into contract manufacturing, and the move has transformed the company. The staff has grown 30-fold in four years as revenue has been "doubling and doubling," says Raber. "It's hard to predict how big we can grow."

It's just another reminder that cannabis industry shares in the upside of manufacturing's incredible resurgence, and at the same time benefits from its first-moving counterparts in the natural food and craft beverage industries. The pieces are all there: refined science and product testing, advanced production and quality control, and fast-changing product distribution and customer strategies. (Also read Eric Peterson's important summary of challenges in California's cannabis supply chain.)

What a time to be involved in California manufacturing.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Email him at btaylor@companyweek.com.