Mike Betts, president and CEO of Betts Company in south Fresno, stands near a trio of robots recently installed to make steel mud flap holders. Photos by Frank Lopez
Written by Frank Lopez
Betts Company started in 1868 making leaf springs in San Francisco to keep horse-drawn buggies riding relatively smooth.
Today — after a few relocations — founder William Michael Betts’ great, great grandson, Mike, oversees the company, which has grown to operate three south Fresno factories manufacturing numerous types of coil and leaf springs, along with other parts for a variety of vehicles from cars to semi trucks to military vehicles and ships.
In addition, the company manufactures accessories for trucks — some patented — including mud flaps built with springs the company produces.
But the work that used to depend heavily on the skills and strong arms of a blacksmith is a lot different today, with heavy machinery doing much of the work and now robots also in the mix.
In fact, over the past six months, Betts’ staff has installed and begun testing three new robots — on top of the four it already had — with plans to make them part of the assembly line making truck mud flap holders.
“The first robot was probably nine, 10 years ago for welding,” Betts, president and CEO of Betts Company, recalled. “It would weld metal parts in multiple different ways,” as it was programmed to weld 30-plus different parts.
That first robot was needed back then because the need to get consistent, reliable welds at high-volume production rates was becoming standard in the industry, and human welders would be hard-pressed to accomplish that at the rate the company needed to produce product.
“So we get the consistency we need — the best in quality — and we get the speed we need.”
As for the six other robots Betts Co. has acquired since, Betts said the need is the same and has become more pressing as the industry has continued to raise the bar on quality and accuracy, and robotics have become more commonly used in factories like his.
Betts’ three newest robots — they look like big, yellow mechanical arms — will work in unison machining and bending steel rods, drilling holes in them and welding attachments on them to create basic mud flaps.
That used to be a process that involved heating the metal first, “but we are able to do that cold now, via the robots,” at least once they’re fully online, said Betts, adding that this will further speed up the assembly line because the heating and some other processes can be skipped.
“We are literally in the fourth industrial revolution right now,” Betts said. “But the reality is we are taking all these technologies and we are merging them, and it’s really the convergence of bringing them all together that has created this fourth industrial revolution.
“Every industry is automating at rampant, rapid, rapid rates, and it’s not just because of the cost of labor or trying to be the global leader in the products and services that we’re providing. It’s to build a better product, a more consistently good product.”
Betts added that today’s robots allow manufacturers to do things they couldn’t have done five or 10 years ago, including interacting with humans to the point where a person can hand it a part.
Even though robotic systems can have considerable costs, innovation and demand have made them much cheaper than they were years ago, making the systems more accessible to manufacturers and in turn making them more consistent and competitive, said Betts, who also is the former president of the San Joaquin Valley Manufacturing Alliance and a current board member.
“The same robot today that you paid $100,000 for was probably $300,000 to $500,000 five or 10 years ago,” said Betts, who didn’t disclose how much his company paid for its new robots.
As for the robots’ effects on jobs, Betts said the additions of the new ones isn’t resulting in any downsizing of his staff of about 350, though some workers will be offered different jobs in the company.
Generally, the addition of robots shouldn’t cost jobs, he said. “It should open doors,” as people to program, run and maintain them will be needed, so it’s important to have opportunities for people to train in these new job skills.
In addition, improved competitiveness should allow companies to grow, creating new jobs in the process, Betts noted.