On entering vocational school, Zavier Alicea was beset by all the doubts and uncertainties that face all kids. That first step was so important. He had some 20 study programs to choose from. Say, carpentry, culinary arts, automotive engineering, communication studies – all of them tempting, but were they what he wanted? He selected robotic engineering and automation.

And from there, he narrowed his focus further to mechatronics — a word constructed of borrowings from mechanical, electronic and electrical engineering systems.

“I was attracted to the problems in it,” said Alicea, embarking on a career based as much on studied ambition as the joys of intellectual challenge. Beyond having the sheer fun of solving problems, why pick the electrical? Because, he said, from the business side, skilled professionals would always be needed in the field.

And he finds himself at ELM Electrical as a panel builder, from the wiring on out – a panel being a simple designation for a highly complex command-and-control instrument carrying disconnect switches, transformers and other electronic components.

Said Scot Laurent, ELM’s Panel Shop Manager: “I got some young, bright kids in here that pick it up [snap of his fingers] real quick. Zavier’s one of them, where, ‘Hey, you want to learn?’ Just throw ’em in front of it. If you got a question — ask me, ask another engineer.”

It all started for Alicea when he helped his dad and grandfather rewire part of their home. That was his introduction to electricity as something more than just what made light bulbs light. The experience triggered a hunger. Maybe most boys want to know what makes a car tick. For Alicea, it was electricity. He was hooked.

Funny how sometimes making the wrong turn can straighten a kid out. On graduating, Alicea took a job as a machine operator. “I wasn’t happy in the situation,” he said. “It didn’t work out.” About that time, ELM acquired Columbia Manufacturing, Inc., a prominent school furniture manufacturer. Alicea’s father, Pedro, was an employee of Columbia, and Pedro mentioned his son to Bob Bacon, ELM President and CEO. And that was it.

“When I first came in and got introduced to the co-workers, they embraced me,” Alicea said. “Through talking with them, became tight and close and had a good friendship.”

Alicea immersed himself in his early duties at ELM.

“You learn different avenues, different areas,” he said, and soon he was involved in drawings and blueprints, as well.

“Every day, it’s something different,” he said. “One day, you’re working on a panel. Next day, there’s an order of, hey, let me get these prints down real quickly. “The work – that’s the fascinating part of it all. I’m loving what I’m doing.”


Any number of lively arguments have been advanced, pro and con, over the use of robots in the workplace – philosophical, economic, ethical.

But nothing argues in favor of robots like the sheer agony of the bad back.

Enter ELM Electrical’s Collaborative Robotic Palletizer.

“Collaborative” – working safely with human beings.

“Palletizer” – a robot that places or stacks boxes of product on a pallet.

The idea behind the palletizer is — let the robot do the heavy lifting, and save the human would-be lifter for lighter tasks and heavy thinking. The robot has no muscles to strain, no ligaments to inflame, no joints to sprain or crack. It doesn’t feel pain, it doesn’t get exhausted. It doesn’t know the pain and immobility all too familiar to those who have a bad back, one of the most chronic injuries in the U.S., and recognized by medicine as the single leading cause of disability worldwide.

Installing a collaborative robot for a company begins with a meticulous study of the work area — the space available, the building features, the floor traffic patterns, etc.

“We go in and look at what the customer’s needs are,” said Senior Vice President Mike Holmberg, “and develop a custom solution to solve their problem. So, we can provide a solution for a wide array of a slow-moving kind of product, and with a collaborative robotic solution that doesn’t impact a lot of floor space for the customer and doesn’t impact a lot of operational change for the customer.”

ELM Application Engineer Tim Doyle pointed to the difference between an industrial robot and the collaborative robot. “You want to keep your distance from an industrial robot,” he said. “They’re a dangerous piece of equipment if they’re not used correctly.” And they take up their own space and have to be fenced off for safety reasons, he added. “The collaborative robot,” he said, “is designed to work with people, to sense forces and to ‘understand’ if they come into contact with someone that they’re not working with.”

And programmed to shut down at that instant.

The professionals who work in the robotics field hear it all, and probably the most fundamental subject is the robots-replacing-people issue.

“A lady came to me,” Senior Automation Engineer Marwan Al Masri was saying, “and she said, ‘Why do you put these robots on? Do you think they’re better than us? Do you think they’re better than human beings?’

“I said no, I don’t. That’s definitely not how I think about it. I said, my job is how to make this save your back, and I protect you and others from getting hurt.”

“It’s not about jobs or anything of that nature,” Doyle said. “It’s about saving somebody’s back from doing a tedious job all day long with heavy lifting.”

Added Holmberg: “Move those individuals into a higher-value path, like visual inspection, something that requires more dexterity, to assemble a part, rather than just do stacking and unstacking cases all day.”

As to deploying a collaborative robot: “So you start with your risk assessment,” said Doyle, “you understand your tasks at hand and make sure they’re acceptable, and when you deploy your [robot], it frees you up, gives you more floor space on the manufacturing floor, in your laboratory or in your assembly area.”

“And so, we do simulations ahead of time, to make sure the robot is actually doing what it’s supposed to do,” said Al Masri, “and afterward, test it over and over again. And finally – we commission it.” “And when that solution works,” Holmberg said, “that’s the joy – not only for the customer, that’s the joy in what we do, and that’s what keeps us going back for the next one.”