Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Features Factory
Saving with safety


May 15, 2009
By Vanessa Chris

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Like many manufacturers, S&C Electric Canada is looking for ways to tighten its belt during the economic downturn.

Although business is still running smoothly, the Etobicoke, Ont.-based manufacturer of switching and protection products for electric power transmissions has nevertheless worked hard to implement leaner plant floor practices, demand just-in-time inventory management from its suppliers and invest in plant floor safety to keep costs down.

While the first two steps sound like logical precautions to take in an economic climate such as this one, when downsized companies are forced to maintain production levels with fewer employees, the concept of safety is typically not seen as a waste-reducing measure. In fact, many companies view it as more of a hassle, with little return on investment.

With new technology available in the marketplace, safety isn’t the barrier it once was. As S&C can attest, the new safety options can actually improve production and reduce accidents, translating into extra money earned, as well as money saved. Indeed, safety can save more than lives.

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Since dedicating itself to safety, S&C’s workers compensation claims have drastically decreased, cutting its insurance rates from $170,000 per year to $80,000 per year. Part of these savings can be attributed to tweaking existing practices and equipment, explains Albert Ng, tooling co-ordinator at S&C. One such change involved streamlining the loading and unloading of dies onto machines by pairing the machines with multiple racks fitted with rollers. The rollers allow the operator to move the die along, load it into place and clamp it down with hydraulic clamps.

Not only is the process safer – eliminating the need to lift the heavy dies and risk injury – but it saves a lot of time. A process that used to take an hour before the hydraulic clamps were put in place can now take only a few minutes. This enables the company to accommodate an increased number of smaller runs in a similar time span.

New technology
One of the biggest improvements S&C has seen, says Ng, is through its investment in a new generation of light curtains. Previous generations of light curtains offered machine operators protection from injury, but at a cost of inconvenience. While those light curtains emitted infrared beams that would automatically shut the machine off if something broke the beam, they didn’t adequately accommodate production runs that didn’t fit perfectly into the machine.

If a piece of metal hung over the side of the machine and broke the light curtain’s infrared beam, the light curtain wouldn’t function unless the blocked beam was turned off. This, in turn, left a hole in the light curtain. If the beam wasn’t switched on again once a different run was started, an operator could easily slip a body part through the curtain undetected.

While S&C still has a few of these older light curtains on its plant floor, it has gradually been introducing newer versions that not only accommodate oversized materials, but allow the operator to function with much more freedom than with past safety guards.

With the help of Cory Newton, president of Tekpress Solutions, a full-service supplier of machining and metalworking services based in Ancaster, Ont., S&C was able to protect its machine operators by using four Leuze light curtains on its die cutting machine. By setting up two of the light curtains horizontally, and two of them vertically, S&C was able to guard around the machine in a grid-like formation, avoiding the shortfalls of previous models. The Leuze curtains also have the capability of operating on different channels, so there is no risk of crosstalk or interference between light curtains.

“Time is money. Our goal is to make people as productive as possible, and as protected as possible,” says Newton.

S&C also installed light curtains to create an infrared testing cage for its Hi Pot testing areas, a form of testing that is required as part of the electric certification process. The infrared cage replaces the need for a more traditional chain-link fence. The light curtain cage can accommodate a 180-foot range, and because the cage consists of four light curtains, it’s easily reconfigurable.

This same technique is used for the turret punch machines. While these machines typically require a chain link cage for protection, the light curtain cage greatly increases an operator’s visibility.

Safety, and customer service, first
Recognizing that safety isn’t the most pressing issue in times of economic uncertainty, many suppliers – including Tekpress Solutions and Leuze electronic – are working hard to make safety as simple and value-added as possible.
Leuze, for example, demonstrated its commitment to local markets by opening a manufacturing plant just across the border in New Hudson, Mich. Not only does this allow the company to efficiently serve the automotive sectors in both the United States and Canada, but it has also allowed them to branch into other manufacturing areas, including packaging, food and beverage, and graphic printing.

Being closely situated to the Canadian manufacturing hub allows Leuze to deliver its light curtains quickly. The company can build and burn its light curtains in approximately three hours and ship them out immediately. If necessary, Leuze can speed up the delivery process by bypassing the distributor and delivering the product directly to the customer via “drop-ship” delivery.

While many light curtain manufacturers don’t offer repair services, Leuze believes this is instrumental in ensuring the customer is kept happy – and the company guarantees a 24-hour turnaround on most repairs. A quick repair process means customers don’t have to keep extra parts on their plant floor, and they don’t have to waste a lot of downtime waiting for the part to be repaired.

“People are very cost conscious now,” says Dan Fournier, national Canadian sales manager for Leuze. “They used to buy spare sets of light curtains, but they’re no longer doing that. We look at what we can do for them, and offer repair services so they don’t have to purchase new ones.”

Tekpress Solutions has a collection of light curtains on hand, so if a customer’s light curtain must be sent in for repairs, they can keep the line going with a loaner. Tekpress’s Newton says Leuze’s quick turnaround time is appreciated by customers, as is the flexibility of the products.

“Because of the particular flexibility of the Leuze light curtains, I can do a lot more for my customers,” he says. “Normally, when you put guards on a machine, it slows down the process. We’ve tried to make that guarding as seamless as possible.”

Continuous improvement
While the overall verdict is positive, Ng acknowledges that switching to the new light curtains and investing in safety altogether took employees a bit of getting used to.

“It’s easier to make big changes rather than little ones, and the new light curtains were a little change,” he says. “We brought someone in to train them and afterwards we took a soft approach. We told them that if they forgot how to do something, they just had to tell us and we would help them.”

With the softer approach, it took employees between two and three months to get the hang of the new equipment. And watching them use it now, you wouldn’t even know it’s there, he says. Unlike with past models, operators can get much closer to machines while remaining safe, and they don’t have to waste time constantly switching different beams on and off.

It is the responsibility of all manufacturers to commit to machine and plant floor safety. But the fact remains that it can sometimes be a difficult sell, especially in tough economic times. And even though many manufacturers consider safety an additional cost to doing business, with the help of partners and suppliers who recognize the value of safety and savings, a safer plant floor may be within their reach.

Vanessa Chris is a freelance writer based in Toronto.