Team 1 Plastics, a plastic injection molding company for the transportation industry, is focused on continuous improvement in every aspect of its business, including efficiency, quality of produced parts, and quality of life for its Team Members. It was this focus that caused the company to purchase Sawyer™, the company’s first collaborative robot (commonly known as a “cobot”) in December 2017.
Developed in 2015 by Rethink Robotics, Sawyer™ is, according to the company’s website, “… the revolutionary collaborative robot designed to execute tasks that have been impractical to automate with traditional industrial robots.”
Cobots are different from traditional robots. They are “…smaller and have more sensors, which help them react faster and with more intelligence when approaching another object or a human so as not to apply too much force and stop operating when appropriate,” according to April Glaser in an article for recode.net. In essence, they work alongside and with humans.
In injection molding plants, like Team 1 Plastics, cobots can be utilized for many different applications such as opening and closing machine doors, inserting and/or removing parts, or cleaning parts.
It’s been six months since Sawyer™ joined the team at Team 1 Plastics, and it’s time for an evaluation. Chris Seidel, Process Engineer II, and Dave Sanford, Quality Manager, shared their observations about Sawyer™ — what the cobot has been doing, what difference it makes, and how it has been accepted by Team Members.
“Sawyer™ has been packaging finished production parts, removing them from a conveyor and placing them into finished packaging,” Seidel said. The cobot sorts left-hand and right-hand parts into separate containers — a very repetitive task that previously had to be done manually by Production Assistants (PAs). “The accuracy with which the cobot places parts into the finishing packaging is surprising!”
“Previously, PAs would hand pack parts that had traveled down a conveyor and fallen into a retaining bin. Sometimes the PAs dropped parts and would have to retrieve them, reducing efficiency, sometimes the parts would fall on each other, leading to a defect, and sometimes right-hand parts would be put into the left-hand packaging. With Sawyer™, parts cannot be dropped and are packed directly into finished packaging. The PA is responsible for changing out the finished packaging on a routine basis, about every 12 to 20 minutes.”
If Sawyer™ does the work for the PAs, isn’t the cobot eliminating jobs? Seidel emphatically said, “No!” although he did admit that this was an initial concern by Team Members. “The Sawyer™ robot allows PAs to concentrate on other aspects of their daily job while ensuring quality of the parts packaged.” And, Sawyer™ makes the PAs’ job less stressful, safer, and improves the work environment. Seidel explained, “It removes the repetitive motion of packing the same part over and over, and the stress of rushing to package parts is eliminated. In the hot summer months, this will prevent overheating and keep the PAs more comfortable.”
Mariane Davids agrees with Seidel. In her blog, Why Humans Should Stop Worrying About Robots Taking Their Jobs, she wrote, “Collaborative robots don’t take jobs, they assist in performing them. For example, if your job typically has you doing something repeatedly with a high margin for an error and a potential for injury in the long-term, a robot could do it for you.”
Davids continued, “Today’s robots are incredible in their ability to repeat a task ad nauseam, but they can only do simple things. When combined with humans, they become more productive and valuable members of the team.”
And, Sawyer™ is considered to be a “valuable member of the team” by the PAs. They have affirmed to Seidel and Sanford that with “Sawyer™ packaging parts, it has allowed them time to concentrate on other jobs in their zone.”
Sawyer™ is also making a difference in production costs and efficiency, helping to keep Team 1 competitive in the global market. Sanford said, “Sawyer™ has reduced parts’ handling cost and time by 67%.” He added that before Sawyer™ joined Team 1, when PAs were short-handed on a shift, the plant often had to shut down jobs that required a high level of labor. Now Sawyer™ is doing these jobs, so that even if a shift is short-handed, the jobs can remain running.
The results of the evaluation are complete. Sawyer™ has improved efficiency, quality of parts, and quality of life for the Team Members. The future of Sawyer™ and other cobots at Team 1 Plastics is bright. Seidel said that the company is looking at additional packing jobs for Sawyer™ and exploring other tasks for the cobot. And, the company is expecting to purchase another cobot in 2019.
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