Industry Watch

Robots Can Be Your Friend

The use of robots in manufacturing doesn't automatically mean people lose jobs

By Brian Martucci
Tue, 2017-05-16 12:19

Ron Kirscht, president of Alexandria-based Donnelly Custom Manufacturing, has a complicated job. He specializes in short-run, low-volume injection-mold manufacturing for clients in various industries. The operation uses 600 materials and 2,800 customized molds for runs of anywhere from a few dozen to tens of thousands of parts.

For Donnelly, it’s a game of inches. The company needs 75 to 100 new molds to add $1 million in revenue, according to Kirscht. Frequent changeovers and custom front-end engineering cut into margins, forcing Kirscht and Vice President of Operations Jerry Bienas to find new efficiencies anywhere they can.

Meanwhile, business is booming as clients’ needs grow more complex, overwhelming Donnelly’s human capacity. The company simply can’t hire fast enough to keep up with demand, especially in a small, low-unemployment market like Alexandria.

“Short-run manufacturing historically has been a tough business to automate,” says Kirscht. “We’ve been forced to implement change management and innovative thinking to improve productivity and grow the company while delivering for long-term clients.” Some have been with Donnelly for decades.

CAN A SHORT RUN BE AUTOMATED?

It’s been tried before. Years ago, founder Stan Donnelly bought a couple sprue-pickers, small gantry robots designed for the company’s ubiquitous presses. But they weren’t core to Donnelly’s work — “they were such a rarity that no one [at Donnelly] ever became familiar with them,” says Kirscht. Cast aside, they gathered dust until they became obsolete.

The second act began around 2008, when Alexandria’s persistent labor shortage became impossible to ignore.

The first major automation investment: part-removal bots, designed for very low-volume projects. Even on such small jobs, part removal is costly — an average of $1,000 per project, estimates Kirscht.

“If we want to do very short-term jobs effectively, we need to get that cost down,” he says.

Donnelly has. Part-removal bots now live on 31 of 35 total injection-molding machines. Before, a floor employee had to stand by each machine, waiting for each part to come down the line. Now, in some cases, one operator can run two or three machines at once — a 50-to-67% work-hours reduction in a particularly low-value, but nevertheless essential, function.

Donnelly’s part-removal bots are very efficient. The engineering team designed four universal end-of-arm toolings that can collectively pick out 800 parts — a significant fraction of Donnelly’s total output.

It cost more than $750,000 to get the part-removal operation off the ground, says Kirscht, but the financial, logistical and intangible benefits are well worth the cost. On that last point, robots actually seem to make Donnelly’s floor employees happier — their work is more stimulating, productive and meaningful.

“Once [workers] get familiar with automated processes, their goals begin to align with leadership,” says Kirscht. “That’s powerful.”

BAXTER IS NEVER LATE TO WORK

Next step: Baxter, a collaborative robot capable of packaging. Baxter is made by Rethink Robotics, a privately held Boston company founded by the guy who helped invent the Roomba floor-cleaning robot. Donnelly has two customized Baxter models deployed on its packaging lines, and it’s working out great.

Baxter sits at the end of a conveyor belt. When a part enters his orbit, he takes it, counts it and places it in a box. When it’s full of 600 parts, he’s ready for a new box. He can layer boxes on top of each other to work longer without interruption. As long as humans keep the boxes coming, he can do his job indefinitely.

Baxter by the numbers
Courtesy of Rethink Robotics:

Weight: 165 pounds (306 pounds with optional mobile pedestal)
Payload: 5 pounds per arm (10 pounds total)
Maximum Reach: 1.2 meters  (3.9 feet)
Degrees of Freedom: 7 per arm
Target Applications: Packaging, kitting, material handling, line loading

He’s not too bright, but Baxter is a model of efficiency and complicity. “He doesn’t care who won the Super Bowl,” says Bienas, “and he can count to 600 every time.”

In practice, Baxter doesn’t work indefinitely; that wouldn’t be very short-run of him. Donnelly’s engineering team devised a “serving platter configuration” that matches specific fixture tubes on Baxter to specific molded parts. Baxter typically runs for six hours to a few days on one conveyor, handling one part. Then the floor team moves him to a different press, reconfigures him, and gets him going again in under 30 minutes.

Baxter is set to handle about 50 parts. The engineering team aims to add another 15 to his repertoire. But Donnelly produces more than 2,000 different parts, so he’s still a pretty small part of the equation. By necessity, he works mostly on higher-volume, longer-run projects.

COLLABORATORS, NOT OVERLORDS

Baxter is just the beginning. Donnelly recently added Rethink’s “Sawyer,” a high-precision “cobot” billed as Baxter’s “brother.” The floor staff’s early trepidation has evaporated; according to Kirscht, the “cool factor” of working alongside robots hasn’t.

When Baxter arrived, Donnelly floor staff trained extensively for his use. Turns out they were already well-prepared. In some ways, says Kirscht, programming and operating Baxter isn’t all that different from playing a computer game.

“People think [young people] wasted their youth gaming, but when you see younger floor staff programming Baxter and Sawyer, you realize that’s absolutely not the case,” says Kirscht. “Those skills are at the forefront of modern manufacturing.”

And they like doing work that leaves them fulfilled. “Our people tell us that they want more meaningful, productive jobs,” says Bienas. “Our goal is to help them achieve that goal while delivering value for the customer and maintaining competitiveness with our global competition.”

Bienas and Kirscht don’t deny that automation usurps certain human jobs. That’s the whole point. But they — and, more importantly, the floor staff — see more opportunity than threat. Kirscht grew up on a dairy farm where his father milked cows by hand. A robotic milker now fills that role; now farm hands earn better pay for cleaner work. One of Donnelly’s top clients is an ATM manufacturer; and while it may be true that ATMs are responsible for the loss of tens of thousands of teller jobs, it’s hard to argue against the utility of 24/7 access to cash.

“The more we can do with robotics, the more we can do with people — and the more those people can earn,” says Bienas.

And, the unspoken corollary: the longer smaller, outstate communities like Alexandria can rely on the growth of midsize manufacturers like Donnelly.

 

BIZ BRIEFING

DONNELLY CUSTOM MANUFACTURING
Headquarters: Alexandria
Inception: 1984
Leadership: Ron Kirscht, President
Employees: ~250
Description:  Specializes in short-run, low-volume manufacturing