Automated manufacturing helps Northern California firms do more with shallow labor pool

“If we hadn’t started automating, we’d have to have 200 more people, but we wouldn’t be in business because I don’t think I could find 200 more people right now,” Happ said.


Having so much robotics on the factory floor has shifted Labcon’s needs from its workforce from repetitive assembly to programming the equipment. The company has worked with its machinery suppliers to develop programmable logic controllers to control the bots via standardized operator interfaces, so the supervisors can adjust the learning curve for the equipment to the skills of the worker, Happ said.

Operators can program jobs in the newer robots simply by physically moving the robot arm to a desired location to set a movement point then move the arm to the next point.

“You would like to hire the most skilled workforce you can, but with unemployment at 3% that’s nearly impossible,” he said. “Turnover is deadly right now because you can’t replace people quickly.”

All the advanced machinery also increases the need for maintenance staff that’s adept in working on computerized machinery, Happ said.

And keeping production onshore can have another competitive advantage when the global supply chain is disrupted by tariffs, embargoes or epidemics. Labcon’s competitors largely manufacture in Mexico and in the area of China currently idled under government efforts to stop the spread of a feared new type of coronavirus.

“We can manufacture on demand and have our products on a (lab) benchtop in San Francisco in a day, while it can take weeks to arrive normally from China,” Happ said.


Cameras, sensors and artificial intelligence increasingly are allowing robots to handle varying task situations that had made humans more adept, such as packaging multiple products from the same production line and spotting imperfections.

“Anything that is repetitive and easily standardized can be close to automated,” said Russell of Manex. The group’s consultants use a value stream map system to analyze each part of a client’s production flow to identify unnecessary steps or other waste, to find out which tasks can be streamlined via automation or enhanced procedures.

And advanced programming and sensors for industrial bots have helped spur the growing adoption of collaborative robots, or cobots. These machines and their controlling software are designed to allow people to work with them on the same tasks in the same work area, rather than largely cordoned off.

“We have three cobots that have minimal guarding around them, because they have touch sensors that make it stop if it runs into something,” Happ said.

By using cobots, Labcon saves about $20,000 in not having to set up guards around the robot and put special sensors on them.


But a challenge for manufacturers interested in increasing production and decreasing costs while casting for recruits in a shallow pool of workers is having enough sales volume to justify the capital investment, according to Happ.

“We can’t automate for a new product if it is only selling 20 cases the first year or 100 cases the second year,” he said. “You need some critical mass to spend $100,000 to $200,000 on automation. Any enterprise before you even plan on automating, you need to do some projections on what your costs will be if you automate. You need to know if the product will gain enough traction.”

That’s why Labcon is currently hand-assembling a new product of which sales are only five cases a month. Happ said sales would have to hit 50 cases a month before the combined cost — robotic assemblers plus hundreds of thousands of dollars in efficiency automation and safety systems around them — makes sense.

Also key to Labcon’s robotics breakeven analysis for a product are real estate and energy costs.

“If you don’t own your real estate in Sonoma County, eventually you get priced out,” Happ said. And owning the plant property makes it easier to add solar energy to it to offset the large power consumption of the robotics, he said.

On the Petaluma buildings, Labcon has 3,000 panels, producing 870 kilowatt-hours and offsetting one-third of the factory’s electricity consumption.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Contact him at or 707-521-4256.

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