Investments in robotics and automation: More than skin deep
For world-class injection molders, it’s not enough to invest in robotics and automation. These technologies are table stakes in the battle for the hearts and minds of OEMs. They must be matched by investments in people and expertise to leverage the greatest customer value from them.
Three years ago, New Berlin Plastics recognized that it needed to develop an internal capability to create and manage automation capabilities and to make this technology a core part of how it manages its business.
“At that time, we were dependent upon third-party vendors to set up and service our robots and automation capabilities,” recalls technical services manager Eric Pipkin. “That limited our ability to deeply integrate them into our operations and to be as agile as possible to meet our customers’ needs. So, we decided to do something about that.”
Since then, New Berlin Plastics has hired three full-time automation manufacturing engineers and one part-time intern. In the process, it has developed the internal knowledge and expertise to drive substantial customer value from these technologies.
The first level of automation, Pipkin explains, removes cycle time variation and human error from the manufacturing process. This is where most plastic injection molders are in their implementation of robotics today.
“The real value to customers lies in taking these technologies to the next level, removing labor entirely from the manufacturing process so we can pass the savings along to them,” he adds.
Investments in action
A great example of New Berlin Plastics’ savvy approach is in the way it uses collaborative robots (“cobots”) to enhance projects where a metal insert must be placed in the mold cavity prior to injection molding.
“Initially, we used a robot mounted on top of the press to pick an insert from a shuttle and place it into the mold cavity, which then closed to begin the molding process. But if these inserts weren’t placed in the shuttle properly, they could cause defective parts, press downtime and, in some cases, even mold damage,” he explains.
As a first step, this was a great use of robots to drive out cycle time variability and eliminate human error. But a worker was still needed to load inserts into the shuttle, he recalls.
The next step was to automate this part of the molding process using a second robot and a vision system to select and pick inserts from a vibrating tray. Camera systems are used to visually inspect the inserts to ensure proper orientation. The robot then picks the inserts and loads them onto the shuttle. A second robot then places them into the mold.
“This fully-automated process enables us to pass some significant savings along to our customers. It also frees up labor that we can re-deploy to higher value-added tasks,” Pipkin points out.
On the people side of the equation, New Berlin Plastics has made some fortunate hires – including an engineer with over 25 years of experience in installing and supporting the robots the company uses in its casting operations.
“His deep experience and expertise have helped us accelerate our automation initiatives,” Pipkin says. “In-house support for technology also makes a huge difference when something goes wrong. We can be back up and running much faster, without having to wait for an outside supplier to parachute in to fix it for us. That enables us to keep our costs low and our customer projects running on time,” he adds.
Preparing to compete globally
Increasingly, New Berlin Plastics must compete in a global economy. To do so successfully requires more than just using automation to eliminate labor from production processes. It requires creative approaches to applying people, processes and technology to customer molding challenges.
It also requires the company to make an ongoing commitment to reinvesting profits into the business. This is hard for many competing molders to do, especially those that have been acquired by investors and are focused on servicing debt.
“Our aggressive, holistic approach to streamlining launch and production processes, plus our savvy investments in people and technology, are helping us to position New Berlin Plastics as a world-class molder,” Pipkin concludes.