On a yearly basis, New Balance makes about 4 million pairs of shoes in the U.S. The Boston-based company produces those shoes here in New England through its MADE program. To help improve its operations, New Balance’s Manufacturing Innovation Team recently started building out a dedicated group focused on robotics and automation.
“There have been robotics projects that have existed in other iterations within New Balance, but this initiative is completely new,” Sarah Mendelowitz, a senior manufacturing innovation engineer at New Balance, said Thursday afternoon at MassRobotics' headquarters.
She was invited to serve as the keynote speaker for the Boston-based nonprofit’s “Robotics in Manufacturing” event, which focused on manufacturing advancements happening in the Boston and Pittsburgh areas, as well as Canada.
New Balance sprints to automation
In 2022, New Balance opened a new factory in Methuen, Mass. This year, it will expand its factory in Skowhegan, Maine, and open an Innovation Center in Brighton, Mass., according to Mendelowitz.
“Our goal for manufacturing innovation is to make products that people like and will buy, but also to improve safety, quality, and output in the manufacturing facilities and reduce costs,” she said.
Mendelowitz noted the robotics team is focused on two main areas:
- Investing in robotic systems that can manufacture the footwear itself
- Investing in robotic systems that can be used for material handling tasks
The company has decided to investigate these technologies now because there is a growing demand for automation in light of “hiring and labor challenges [and] supply chain uncertainty,” she noted in one of her presentation slides.
Robot arms struggle to handle shoe materials
New Balance's innovation team has found that implementing robots into its manufacturing process has its challenges. Robot arms often struggle to manipulate the materials used to build the shoes, for example.
“They’re porous. They’re flexible. They’re not deterministic,” Mendelowitz said. “Those type of things are hard for robots to pick up, so we’ve been spending a lot of time trying to understand how do we pick up and manipulate these types of items and still know where they are in space.”
Another challenge for robots is dealing with the various different SKUs of products and the many steps in the production process. Mendelowitz mentioned that robots have struggled in the sewing process.
The team has also spent time trying to understand fixturing and looking at different ways the robots can be placed within the manufacturing line to optimize production.
Since the group is still early in the process of integrating systems, Mendelowitz said it has been asking some basic questions to help them determine the best pieces of equipment for a particular job.
“Questions like: ‘What kind of robot arm do we want to use? What kind of camera do we want? What inspection software do we want?’”
New Balance doesn’t just look outside of its facilities for technologies; it also develops its own in-house. Mendelowitz mentioned that the company is in the process of developing its own end-of-arm tooling (EOAT).
New Balance turns to AMRs and forklifts for materials handling
New Balance uses a range of different robots to help move items across the facilities. Truck unloading robots, palletizing robots, box-cutting robots, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), and autonomous forklifts are among the systems the company has invested in for that part of the operation.
“This is more of a mature space,” she said. “We’re looking at things that other companies can provide to help us make this whole operation run smoother.”
Since New Balance is building out its innovation team, it is looking to bring on new people, she noted.
“For my team, we’ll be hiring across the board for anything that is helpful for robotics, from mechanical and software to R&D,” she said.
Editor’s note: Robotics 24/7 will have additional coverage on MassRobotics’ “Robotics in Manufacturing” event. This article has also been corrected to specify that New Balance makes 4 million shoes annually in the United States.