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 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .
In the past, robotic vision was confined to the laboratory and perhaps a few custom applications. Nowadays, robust robots are using sight in non-fixtured, unstructured factory environments, thanks to the integration of artificial intelligence with traditional industrial robotics. A camera, robot and robot controller are linked to a computer, allowing the robot to see, move and react much like a human being. Many automotive parts manufacturers have embraced vision-guided robotics (VGR) and integrated the technology into their factories.
It was business as usual when Windsor, Ont.-based Tri-Way Manufacturing Technologies Corporation received an order from an automotive parts supplier. The order was to build an eight-station dial table machine, which would produce left and right aluminum rocker covers for General Motors.
An eight-camera machine-vision system helps a 21st-century fighter jet prepare for takeoff
When BMW Manufacturing Corp. decided to introduce the world's first luxury sport activity vehicle at its South Carolina plant, the X5 SAV, the automotive manufacturer knew it would have to expand its production and storeroom floor space. The company figured it would require an additional 900,000 square feet to accommodate the new models and increase in production volume.
Freelance reporter Peter Fretty recently visited Madison, Ind., and toured automotive-parts manufacturing plants that have benefited from automation. One such plant, Arvin Sango, has a unique automation story: Almost every piece of automation equipment found in the factory was the idea of a shop floor worker who recognized a production process that would benefit from automation. The company says it encourages employees on the shop floor to keep in constant communication with upper management and share ideas for improvement. Managers take their employees' opinions seriously, and often implement them.In a business as complex as manufacturing, discussions on ways to streamline plant operations usually involve plant managers, chief executive officers, other high-ranking decision-makers and, when necessary, outside consultants.But Arvin Sango Inc., a Madison, Ind.-based manufacturer of automotive exhaust systems and stamped components, is proving that sometimes the most innovative and successful ideas for improvement come straight from the men and women running production lines.Since the company was founded in 1988, the production team has been involved in a kaizen program in which team members regularly brainstorm ways to improve operations. According to Scott Hubbard, general manager, operations, the company automated dozens of production processes based on suggestions from shop floor staff during these kaizen blitzes. Kaizen, which is a Japanese term, loosely means "good change." Some companies hold kaizen meetings to discuss business practices with employees and look for better, more efficient ways of running operations."We have a unique level of stability that encourages [our factory floor employees] to stretch outside their normal boundaries and continuously look to improve their individual areas, whether through increased automation or other types of process improvement," says Hubbard. "We have almost come to expect them to make recommendations and be an active part of the organization's success."Nicole Browning, a production team member, agrees that the company's orientation to its shop floor workers is unique. "[At] other plants I've worked for, [one] had to worry about being laid off and getting bumped to different shifts," she says. "Other plants rarely have the direct communication with managers that we have at Arvin Sango. We [at Arvin Sango] know that if we want to make a change to improve our jobs, we can go through the kaizen program ... [Sometimes] ideas are actually implemented by the member or members who come up with them, and management is willing to lend a hand if needed."Star Dupree, another production team member, echoes Browning's opinion. "Employees are treated with respect and our ideas are taken to heart as we are the ones running production," she says. "It is a breath of fresh air to know our opinions are respected and actually implemented. Opinions and ideas from the production work force are respected because who would know better than the operator on how to improve production and quality?"One improvement idea that the company implemented involved the firm's largest steel press. The steel press makes steel shells for one of Arvin Sango's largest production assemblies. Shortly after the new press was up and running, production staff recognized that steel sheets were misloading far too often, and workers wanted to find a solution to the problem. "Knowing we needed to stop misloads was the easy part," says Randy Lockridge, the company's production manager. "Trying to figure out where it was coming from is where it got tough. One of our maintenance men came up with the idea to install a camera system to help us determine which end of the sheet feeder was causing the problem. Now, the vision system shuts the machine down when there is a problem to make sure that a misload does not cause line failure or excessively high scrap."Lockridge says his staff came up with the camera system idea during one of 50 kaizen blitzes they held to discuss the 2,000-tonne steel press. "It was typical of the kind of ideas we now expect from the talented people we have working here," he says. The kaizen program played a major role in decreasing the number of unscheduled weekend workdays, adds Lockridge. In 2003, employees worked 23 unscheduled Saturdays and seven unscheduled Sundays, whereas in 2004, employees worked only eight unscheduled Saturdays and no unscheduled Sundays."We have doubled our GSPH (good stamps per hour), and gone from three shifts to two shifts," says Lockridge. "In this specific example, daily downtime decreased by 70 percent, and misloads in January 2003 were 8,300-a number that by October 2004 dropped to only 15 [misloads]."Another employee idea the company implemented was to design and build stationary stands that allow problem-free transfer of parts between dies. The employee came up with the idea during a kaizen blitz in which production team members discussed problems related to the plant's automated substations. Each time the steel press would stroke, the original strands of the press, which were attached to each die, would bounce and misload. The staff member's idea solved the problem. Does that mean that all ideas are approved, or that each idea put into practice is a success? Not quite. But workers are rewarded regardless because, Lockridge says, the fact that his team is merely thinking of ways to increase company profitability is good enough. "Most of us learn from doing," Lockridge says. "Most of the time, we don't get [things] right the first time. But bad suggestions are the seeds for many great ideas."Peter Fretty is a freelance reporter specializing in automation and manufacturing topics. E-mail him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Four ways to motivate your production team 1 Start a norm, but be patient. Establish a norm at your company of sharing ideas and expressing opinions, and keep it going. "If people do not see this as a norm that will last forever, they won't buy into it and you will lose before even getting started," says Lockridge. Speaking from experience, Lockridge says changing the overall employee perspective takes time like any other change. 2 Don't forget to praise-even the bad ideas. "Even praise the bad ideas for the effort that was made, and make it a point to take those ideas and keep expanding them until you get the desired results," Lockridge says.3 Let employees know that it is safe to voice their opinions. No one wants to work themselves out of a job. Reassure employees that their automation and improvement ideas will not necessarily result in worker layoffs. Sometimes leaning out production practices frees up personnel to tackle new projects, such as extending existing product lines, adding new product lines or revamping product designs. 4 Don't force ideas, and prepare for the inevitable lull. "You can not expect so many ideas per month per person or line. The only thing people have to do is die and pay taxes," Lockridge says. Also, expect dry spells sometimes when your employees run out of ideas, or worse, lose the motivation to think of ideas. When this happens, it is time to inspire workers to dig deeper, and to reinforce that there are no boundaries to their imagination.
The perfect bun: That's one of the goals of an automated product-inspection prototype under development by Georgia Institute of Technology researchers working with Flowers Bakery in Villa Rica, Georgia. The first phase of the work is introducing continuous imaging technology to the large-scale production of sandwich buns for fast-food restaurants, which hold to exacting product specifications.
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