A year ago, Randy Barcus was in a bind.

Worker retirements and sales had soared and Barcus needed another 50 workers to load the automated milling and drilling machines that make Graco's industrial sprayers in Minneapolis.

Frustration grew.

"If I can't get a part assembled on time, then that is an order I can't fulfill," said Barcus, a Graco manufacturing cell manager. "It affects customer service. It affects speed to market."

Graco ratcheted up recruiting efforts, but it wasn't enough. It also turned to robots to help solve the problem.

A decade ago, Graco had no robots on the factory floor, Barcus said. Now the company has 24 large robots at its northeast Minneapolis factory, with more being installed this year, to load parts into the automated machines.

"These robots work 24/7 with the lights on or off," Barcus said.

Robots — and the automated machines they work with — are not new to Graco. But like the Minneapolis-based company, firms nationwide are adding more of them as they try to combat a stinging labor shortage.

Robots can load parts onto assembly lines or into critical milling machines all day long. That frees up humans for other, more important work, industry bosses say. But they admit that automating entire production lines can cause a skills problem as well.

Robots must speak to automated machines. And human workers must know how to make that happen.

The problem: Most workers are trained to program the machines or the robots. But they don't know how to integrate the two.

As a solution, Graco's foundation gave Dunwoody College of Technology a grant to develop a first-of-its-kind training program in Minnesota. The grant let the college buy the costly machinery needed to create a new pipeline of cross-trained job candidates. By next year, Dunwoody students will have the basic skills needed to begin integrating entire assembly lines.

On a recent Friday, Barcus demonstrated the complexity of Graco's $1.6 million automated manufacturing cells. This particular machine — the size of a small house — makes cylinder parts for industrial sprayers used to paint bridges, ships, buses and trains.

As Barcus watched, a tall yellow robot clamped a chunky 15-pound steel bar, removed it from a packing crate and placed it on a stand. The robot measured, photographed and fed each part, one by one, into an automated CNC (or computer numeric control) milling cage.

Sensing the "delivery," the cage automatically shut its doors, spewed coolant fluid, hollowed out the steel and milled screwing threads into the top. With the milling done, the yellow robot returned, grabbed, rinsed and dried the part and deposited it gently into the "Done" box.

Nearby, workers were glued to the adjacent computers, checking programming instead of just loading the machines.

"I had never seen a system like it before they brought it in," said Corry Whitaker, who has been a CNC machinist at Graco for seven years and graduated in 2014 from Anoka Technical College.

"You can see that it starts out as a big old chunk of steel and finishes as a honed [part] that is five-tenths of an inch," he said. "This is the Mercedes-Benz of [industrial] equipment. I'm still training with it. It's a lot of trial and error for me."

Barcus said he and other factory managers want these advanced manufacturing cells to dot the entire factory, but it's a big undertaking.

The robots are not cheap. It can take a year and a half to properly program one robot to communicate with a milling machine. And there aren't enough workers who know how to do the programming and oversee the cells, Barcus said.

Still, Graco, a $1.6 billion company, committed about 25 percent of its capital budget to improving automation in its Minneapolis, Rogers and Anoka plants.

The investment will be worth it, Barcus said.

Graco officials are hoping another investment will pay off in better trained workers. As part of the company's investment, it bought Dunwoody a robotic and CNC training cell.

"Dunwoody is one of the first in the country to get this Fanuc MTEC system," said E.J. Daigle, the Minneapolis college's dean of robotics and machining.

"They have only sold about half a dozen of these nationwide. So, it's a fairly new system and it's here," he said while flanked by three crouching students and two professors trying to program the robot and milling machine to make pristine cribbage boards out of steel.

It is this kind of advanced, high-tech robotics that will take the place of hard-to-fill jobs.

"Right now, in most of Graco, that [picking and loading and unloading parts] is somebody's job, eight hours a day, five days a week," Daigle said, while pointing to the robot as it grabbed and loaded a steel slug into the milling machine. "The problem is that we don't have enough of those people out there that are willing to do that job. Now imagine if we had robots [like this] that could do all that?"

Then companies like Graco could keep its product deliveries on schedule. Barcus emphasized that the robots are not displacing workers.

"We can't get enough machinists, and we are always looking for good machinists," he said. "Any new machine-tending robots allow the machinists we do have to adopt other, higher levels of responsibility on the machining side."

Chronic labor shortages are prompting more U.S. factories to turn to robots and automation in their plants.

Factories bought a record 34,905 robots worth $1.98 billion in 2017, according to the Association for Advancing Automation. Non-automobile robots drove the growth, jumping 21 percent in one year.

But like Graco and "everyone else in our industry is aware, there are limitations on the idea of automation," said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Robotics Industries Association.

For one, there are not enough people trained to use the technology, he said. "Just buying a robot doesn't do much for you."

The MTEC cell arrived at Dunwoody in November, and it was installed and up and running by January, just in time for spring semester classes.

Burnstein is not surprised Graco funded the training program at Dunwoody. Many companies need outside programming firms called "integrators" that can get robots and existing factory machines to work together to automate a production line.

Kim Wieting, a Dunwoody-educated industrial engineer that is doing this work inside Graco's Minneapolis factory, graduated a few years before the new program started.

"I'm jealous," she said of the opportunities the current students have. "I'm still learning [on this job] and it's a bit of a headache. Our [new] robots don't communicate with our [milling] machines. It's a different language. So it takes a long time to integrate."

It took five months for her team to program one manufacturing cell. Today's Dunwoody students "are lucky," she said while showing visitors the new robot/CNC manufacturing cell she integrated to automatically shave down steel burrs and hone steel cylinders to precise thicknesses. Having future job candidates arrive at Graco with Dunwoody's new MTEC training could help shorten the integration process, she said.

"That's the idea," Barcus said. "We have a lot of CNC [milling] machines that don't have any robots on them — yet."

As more robots are added they will "run two or three CNC machines," Barcus said. That will improve product quality and reduce worker injuries. Right now, "The lifting of these [steel] slugs and bars wears on your hands and shoulders over time," he said. "The robot takes that away."

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725