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Robotics: Changing Manufacturing Processes...and Facility Requirements

Today’s robotics are having an impact on the factory floor, in warehouse and distribution centers, and even in executive offices and homes.

Directory 2013
Robots like Baxter, from Rethink Robotics of Boston, Mass., pictured here, can be taught to do mundane tasks on the factory floor and even retrieve items and stack them onto pallets in the warehouse.
Robots like Baxter, from Rethink Robotics of Boston, Mass., pictured here, can be taught to do mundane tasks on the factory floor and even retrieve items and stack them onto pallets in the warehouse.
At Rio Tinto’s West Angelas mine in Australia, large automated Komatsu trucks are moving tons of earth thereby saving $100,000 per truck annually in operating costs. Meanwhile, in the U.S., warehouse robots scurry down aisles to locate goods or parts, as directed by their human controller, and return them to a pallet for loading and shipping, while saving time, reducing injuries, and cutting costs. It is all part of a robotics revolution that is proliferating to the everyday operations of more and more businesses.

Used by Companies Large and Small
“In the past, only large companies with numerous repetitive tasks, such as automotive manufacturers, could afford robotics. Today, efficient, cost-effective robots are available for both mid-sized and small companies for low-volume projects or parts,” says Justin Percio business manager for the automated welding segment of Lincoln Electric in Cleveland, Ohio.

“Our robotic welding cells serve a wide variety of industries — from offshore drilling to wind power and from shipbuilding to heavy fabrication. Companies looking for ways to increase output and achieve quality improvement at the same time are turning to robotic welding systems,” Percio points out. “In the past, automotive companies and other large manufacturers used robotics to do one thing or insert one part millions of times over the years. Today, robots are flexible enough to work on a large variety of parts or tasks cost-effectively. You can cut cycle time 20 percent to 60 percent depending on the complexity of the part,” he adds.

Expanded Use in the Manufacturing Process
Cotterman Company — a Croswell, Michigan, manufacturer of various industrial ladders, work platforms, and lift platforms — teamed up with Lincoln Electric and AccuBilt of Jackson, Michigan, to introduce robotics into its manufacturing process.

“Our challenge was to increase our flexibility and reduce manufacturing turnaround time in order to fulfill orders in a matter of days,” stressed Nick Valore, Cotterman’s vice president. “We wanted to reduce finish goods inventories and make small batches for immediate delivery. We have four manufacturing plants across the country [that allow us to] supply our customers with the product they want, when they want it. This also helps reduces freight costs, inventory costs, and freight damage and delays.”

Cotterman’s ladders and platforms use a wide variety of parts combinations depending on the customer’s requirements. The flexible tooling of the robotic welding system is capable of identifying the ladder configuration and the parts required to build each specific ladder. The system can handle thousands of different parts combinations. In turn, increased productivity helps Cotterman deliver a first-class product at a competitive price.

Valore also points out, “While our biggest competitor buys from China and has to maintain inventory, we build a quality product to order and get it to the customer quickly. Robotics help us achieve this strategy. Conventional wisdom states robotics are used to replace workers. In our case, we have actually increased our work force since we started using robotics as a tool to increase productivity, improve quality, and cut costs. The increased use of robotics played a role in the 24,000-square-foot expansion of our Michigan manufacturing plant.”

Next: Robotics in Logistics/Distribution Settings and its Impact on Facility Layouts

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