COLUMBIA — When a doctor performs surgery to repair a hernia, spring-like fasteners that hold the surgical mesh are pre-loaded onto a rod. A thin tube is inserted through a small incision, the rod is sent through the tube and the surgeon injects the fasteners into the surrounding tissue.

Making those pre-loaded rods, each with 30 fasteners, requires precision and has been a process done by hand by workers with tweezers and magnifying glasses.

But a robotics system being built by REI Automation in Columbia can load a rod every 40 seconds, inspecting them with cameras and data-analyzing software to ensure each tiny fastener is without flaws and correctly aligned.

Automation in manufacturing has been big business, and with machines like these, it’s just getting bigger.

In the first half of 2019, the North American robotics market was up 7.2 percent. From January to June, companies ordered 16,488 robots, valued at $869 million, according to the Association for Advanced Automation. In 2018, 35,880 units were shipped for the year, a 7 percent increase over the past record set in 2017.

“We are currently experiencing the greatest period of robot expansion in history—over 180,000 robots have been shipped to American companies since 2010," association president Jeff Burnstein said in a statement.

REI Automation is no exception to this market rise.

"It's been pretty dramatic the last three to four years," chief executive Grant Phillips said.

REI Automation is up to 80 employees, having hired 25 people over the past year. Of those, 40 percent work as engineers and another 40 percent are technicians, such as electricians. The rest are support staff.

Phillips expects they'll need another 15 employees next year. To house its growing workforce, the company is spending $2.5 million to expand and renovate its headquarters east of downtown Columbia.

REI Automation has found its niche customizing equipment and assembly lines, sometimes building machines from scratch and other times adapting existing machinery to fit clients’ specific needs.

"We build things you can’t buy," Phillips said.

The company works mainly automotive, medical supply, nuclear, fiber and consumer goods companies.

Medical has been the driver behind the company’s most recent growth, making machines that fill IV bags or anything disposable where hospitals and doctor’s offices need large quantities.

In the 20 years since Phillips and his partner took ownership of the company, they’ve gone from 2,000 to 60,000 square feet of space, having added on about every five years.

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Customer growth has come from geographical expansion. Having started with just the Carolinas, the company’s clientele is now global.

“They provide an interesting service,” said Venkat Krovi, a Clemson University professor working within the school’s Center for Advanced Manufacturing. “They’re quite a progressive company.”

Automation in manufacturing has largely consisted of a robot performing a single task, often caged to keep it from bumping into and injuring nearby workers. This is the technology one would see deployed in many plants in South Carolina and around the world, Krovi said.

In processes, like welding or painting or stacking boxes, automation is rampant. But when it comes to product assembly, automation has not made as much headway.

“We’re at a point in time that’s changing,” Krovi said, and newer trends are emerging, like collaborative robots.

Though most of REI Automation's automotive sector work is for auto parts suppliers, the automation company has done work the BMW plant in Greer after designing a four-robot system that works alongside a human vacuuming welding scraps from the floor of car frames before they’re painted. This work was done entirely by manpower previously.

Krovi said South Carolina manufacturing is fertile ground for assembly automation as industry is rapidly growing and workforce is harder to come by. He said this automation is less about replacing workers and more about providing tools to make workers more productive, like a robot who fetches parts for workers on an assembly line.

Jessica Holdman is a business reporter for The Post & Courier covering Columbia. Prior to moving to South Carolina, she reported on business in North Dakota for The Bismarck Tribune and has previously written for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.