Automation Saves American Jobs.
Traditionally, wire baskets for refrigerators were made with a primarily manual process. A work cell of 6 people could produce a basket every 90 seconds. The process involved using a press to "pop up" a flat wire mesh into a basket shape, welding a frame to it and trimming off the wires extending from the frame. Our customer was on the verge of transferring the manufacturing of these baskets from the United States to Mexico to take advantage of the lower-cost labor available. The management and union began to investigate alternatives to closing and moving the operation. IES Systems was contacted to see if some type of automated process could be used to reduce the labor cost of producing these baskets.
The first major obstacle we faced was the belief that this was not really possible. It had been tried before, and had failed, but no one wanted to give up without a fight. IES sent a team of engineers – including several owners - to the plant to observe the process and brainstorm ideas. The process was basically a machine-tending operation that was repetitive, so a concept of robotic automation began to emerge.
Boom! Another brick wall! A previous bad experience with a robot that "never worked right" clouded the customer’s judgment. (Incidentally, that robot is now humming along after one of our engineers did a little work on it and provided some training!) Undeterred, we offered to build a proof-of-concept prototype. Less than a month later, the customer came to our facility and witnessed a robot holding a wire basket going through the motions required to weld and trim a basket. There was a complete paradigm shift: this is possible!
"Ok, but how much is this going to cost? We need a payback of no more than a year.” We started crunching some numbers and discovered that just replacing human labor hours with machine hours was not going to make it. Instead of buying new presses, trimmers, and welders, we were able to utilize the existing manual equipment by just adding some new controls, saving tens of thousands of dollars. In addition, the rate of basket production needed to increase by a factor of four. We developed timing diagrams and process flow charts, based on data from our prototype, to show what is possible. Once the cell was installed and optimized, we were actually seeing production rates up to six times faster than the manual operation. What once required six people now required just one operator. No one lost their jobs, since the displaced workers were retrained and employed at higher skilled positions within the plant.
There were some additional benefits associated with this project: the cell actually requires less floor space now, scrap percentage is way down, consistency and quality are way up, and work related injuries due to the repetitive motion have been eliminated. The union and management were thrilled with the outcome, and this plant has become a shining example throughout the corporation. Several other plants have followed suit, and have had IES Systems develop a system for them as well. The original cell has received upgrades and more upstream automation, and now is capable of running "lights out" for several hours.