Handle with care: Robotics palletizing system
June 24, 2005 by David Abels
Dan Schodowski faced a challenge. As president and chief executive officer of Solon, Ohio-based JTM Products, Inc., he knew the company was ready to grow, and making the right investment choices would be critical.
JTM was founded in 1890 as the Phoenix Oil Company, and is best known as the remaining piece of the Murphy Oil Soap company, which Colgate-Palmolive Company acquired in 1991. JTM started out producing axle greases, belt dressings and lubricants for the Industrial Revolution. Today, the company’s business centres around two product lines: Murphy’s tire mounting and demounting lubricants, and Phoenix pipe joint lubricants, used in water and sewer lines construction.
With up to US$10 million in annual sales and 65 percent market share for its two main product lines, JTM had the financial stability to grow. But if it expanded, the firm would need to make some changes to its production processes. “We were pretty much pigeonholed into an old building,” says Schodowski. “We couldn’t expand. Even within the building we could not add a lot of machinery or equipment. If we wanted to expand our business, we needed more room.”
Once the company decided on a new site (its current location just outside of Cleveland), Schodowski’s next challenge was to meet the material handling demands of JTM’s product range. While the Murphy’s line of products is primarily packaged in 25- and 40-pound pails, the Phoenix line is primarily packaged in cases of either quart or gallon containers. With both sets of products needing to be palletized before shipment, Schodowski’s factory staff was left with a lot of slow and heavy lifting.
The move to automation
“When we started laying out the new facility, we knew that we had a lot more room and that we would be able to run both lines at the same time,” says Schodowski. “Running simultaneously in the old plant was a predicament. To do that, we needed extra staff on hand-staff that would be there even if both lines were not running.”
According to Schodowski, JTM needed a system that could handle both product lines, and allow JTM to allocate more space in the new 70,000-square-foot facility for its chemical processing and packaging equipment and its inventory. Schodowski and Larry Wilson, JTM’s director of operations, researched their options before deciding on FKI Logistex’s integrated robotic palletizing cell featuring a Motoman articulated-arm robot a vacuum end-effector.
“It was either buy two separate palletizers to handle the cases and handle the pails, or look at a[n] [integrated system] that could do both,” says Schodowski. “When we found out that FKI Logistex offered us the ability to palletize both product lines with one piece of equipment, we wanted to look at that option.” The new system would also free up floor space in the new plant.
The robotic palletizing system sits enclosed in a safety cage, roughly in the centre of JTM’s new factory floor-surrounded on one side by the processing and packaging equipment, and on the other by pallets of stacked cases and pails. Pails of Murphy’s tire lubricant paste being filled, capped, and conveyed up to the cell chug along in the background. With a whir of motion, the robot rotates to pick up an empty pallet from its pallet-loading station and places it in position at the start of an out-feed pallet conveyor so it can begin palletizing the pails.
Ten pallets are pre-loaded onto the pallet-loading station at the start of a sequence and the robot counts its way down. On the infeed side of the cell, accumulation conveyors take up the pails from the production conveyors. The robot’s control system instructs the conveyors to queue the pails for the robot. Depending on the product size and stacking pattern, the robot’s vacuum tool picks up one or three pails at a time, and puts them down to form the rows and layers of palletized products. When the pallets are full, an automatic shrink-wrapper shrink-wraps them, before a forklift takes the pallets to inventory on the shop floor.
A similar process occurs for the cases of Phoenix pipe lubricant. The operator sets up the system at the outset, loads the pallets, and then lets the robot pick a pallet to begin stacking. The cases come into the cell from a second infeed line, and the process starts anew. Beyond allowing JTM to run two lines at once, the palletizing cell handles a variety of stacking patterns and pallet sizes in addition to managing the different pail and case sizes.
When JTM uses the system at only 65 percent capacity (leaving the extra capacity for continued growth), the cell handles 75 percent of JTM’s annual business volume, or approximately 200,000 pails and 150,000 cases per year, according to JTM’s Wilson. The factory runs one 7.25-hour shift five days a week with a factory crew of eight, but does not palletize every day. Normally, the robotic system palletizes 2,800 pails per day, compared with 1,800 pails per day that workers hand-stacked at the old facility, generating a 55 percent productivity gain that has enabled moderate sales growth since the robot was installed. The robot’s addition to capacity has also freed the crew to work on other tasks in the factory.
The decision to install a robot was due, in large part, to the founding family’s values and to the safety and ergonomic issues surrounding a loyal, but aging, factory crew. The robotic system eliminates some of the crew’s most labour-intensive work, says Wilson. “Not everything is based on hard economics, even though we thought there was a pretty good payback on the project,” says Schodowski. “We could be saving someone’s back, which could be a worker’s compensation claim somewhere down the road. Those can be very expensive. When you factor in all of those types of costs, you can say the payback is definitely worth it.”
Schodowski calculates that the new system saves JTM at least one person’s salary and benefits per year. “I think the payback could be even quicker because as we grow, we won’t have to add additional personnel. Our original plan was to keep to a crew of eight, which is where we are today,” he adds.
David Abels is senior account executive/senior copywriter at Koroberi, Inc., a business-to-business marketing firm in Chapel Hill, N.C. You can reach at email@example.com.