Tacoma, Washington-based Tool Gauge manufactures precision metal and plastic components and assemblies for the aerospace industry. Producing these labor-intensive products in a tight hiring market presents significant challenges. With long-term customer contracts that cannot be renegotiated, Tool Gauge turned to automation to help mitigate and contain labor costs. Two collaborative robots from Universal Robots accomplished that goal, while also decreasing scrap and improving product quality.
And while reducing the need for additional workers for repetitive, undesirable jobs, Tool Gauge also found new opportunities for employees to add value, improve safety, and gain job satisfaction.
Jim Lee, Tool Gauge general manager, faces the stark realities of doing business in a global market.
Even though the company is close to many of its customers in the Pacific Northwest, those customers can do business anywhere in the world, including in much lower-cost labor markets.
“It became clear to us that the way that we can compete is not by adding more bodies but by adding more technology, and then adding more value using that technology,” he said.
The company’s fixed-price contracts can extend for five to seven years, without the ability to renegotiate even if labor costs increase. Tool Gauge needed to build in efficiencies—and found that cobots from Universal Robots (UR) were the perfect solution.
Lee described the three key advantages of UR’s collaborative robots. “We chose Universal Robots because one, they are cobots: We were always kind of afraid of using automation because there’s a huge capital investment, but that isn’t the case with the Universal Robots. Two, we were concerned about walling off portions of our manufacturing to put in automation cells, which we don’t have to do with UR. And three, we can configure the UR cobots to do hundreds of different things; they’re highly configurable and they’re easy to move around. So for us, it was really the only solution.”
Tool Gauge installed two UR cobots to address repetitive, high-labor applications in both its metal and plastic parts departments.
On the metal side, an easily damaged copper machined part was being produced by a fully attended journeyman CNC machinist simply to pull parts off the CNC chute, clean, rinse, dry, and box them. Now, the parts pass a proximity sensor that sends a signal to a UR3 cobot to pick them up. The cobot places parts in a rinse bath, then holds them up in front of a dryer where after they are dropped into individual cardboard cells.
Tool Gauge was able to use the palletizing wizard that is built into the UR cobot to easily program the robot to drop each part into an open cell in the box in a grid pattern.
“When we put the Universal Robot in place, that was a $9,000 savings of the reduced labor involvement on the very first order, and we expect to run that multiple times in the future,” said Lee, who is no longer wasting his machinist’s talents but can have him focus on higher-value projects such as setting up and programming the CNC machines.
In the injection molding department, a UR5 robot is used for an intricate plastic extrusion assembly, picking up end caps for a plastic panel, moving them through a glue dispenser.
After correct dispensing of the glue in the end cap, the UR5 places the part in an actuator on a table where the part is clamped. An operator then takes over, inspects the gluing, and removes the part. This task used to require four operators to produce about two hundred units per day. Now, the automated application requires one operator working with the UR5 cobot to produce four hundred units per day.
The bonding operation also had a fairly high rejection rate. Tool Gauge manufacturing engineer Steven Ouzts explained, “Any time you work with glue, there are so many variables that can negatively impact the results of your product, so we wanted to switch away from human-applied gluing to robot-applied gluing to take advantage of the repeatability that a robot gives. Our scrap rates are reduced from 15 percent to just three percent.”
Added Lee: “What I thought would be one of the most difficult assembly operations—using a robot to apply glue on a very complex surface—works very, very well.”
Beyond the labor savings, Lee also emphasizes the quality and consistency of the robotic bond, and the fact that it gives operators time to inspect the bond rather than just producing the part as quickly as possible.
Not only was it difficult for a human operator to dispense glue exactly the same way every time, potential injury was also a concern.
Said Ouzts: “The area the glue needs to be applied is incredibly narrow, so over time, operators were seeing fatigue in their hands.”
This fatigue is now a thing of the past.
“It’s very nice having the Universal Robot in that cell because of how safe it is. You don’t have to worry about injuries resulting from this cobot,” he said.
Tool Gauge CEO Debbie Lee said the company has experienced additional savings through a decrease in repetitive motion injuries.
“We have seen a reduction in the Labor and Industry claims on our production floor, as robotics take over these monotonous tasks,” she said, adding that the robots have enabled Tool Gauge to appeal to younger workers, providing a hiring advantage for recent grads who want to work with exciting, interesting technologies. “Working with the cobots is something that they enjoy, it’s more of a skilled hobby, rather than just coming in and running a machine.”
Before the Universal Robots, manufacturing engineer Ouzts had minimal robotic experience—just some time in college using a traditional, non-intuitive SCARA robot.
So the easy UR programming experience was a huge benefit, he said. “When switching to Universal Robots, the intuitive nature of the graphic user interface is what really drew me in. I really appreciate how all the terms in the software are in layman’s terms. I can understand them a lot easier and know exactly how the code runs from start to finish, and I get very good positive feedback graphically of what my actions will cause the robot to do.”
Another benefit of the Universal Robots is how easy it is to connect digital and analog input signals to a control box.
Ouzts found that using the proximity sensor was as easy as plugging the wires into one of the 12-volt digital inputs, selecting it from the I/O screen on the UR3’s teach pendant, and waiting for a signal from the sensor to tell the cobot when it’s time to pick up a part.
One of the first reasons Tool Gauge looked at automation was to address serious labor shortages. The company was looking at the need to hire as many as a hundred new employees who simply weren’t available in the tight Pacific Northwest labor market.
With the UR cobots, the company is able to cut that number in half, while being able to hire workers for jobs they want.
“We found out that the people that were doing the jobs that the robot would do were really happy not to have to do those jobs” any longer, Lee said. “I think that we’ll be ordering a lot more because people enjoy working next to the robots. They’re quiet, and they’re very predictable in terms of what they produce and the number of things that they can do. If you ask all of our employees if they would have any concerns about working next to a Universal Robot it would be emphatically, ‘Absolutely none’.”
In the aerospace industry, where product designs can remain unchanged for 20 or 30 years, expectations for return on capital investment is longer than many other industries. Lee initially thought that a three- or a four-year return on the robot investment would be good. He was pleasantly surprised by the Universal Robots, seeing 50 percent ROI on the UR5 within the first quarter of production, and similar for the UR3, and with expected payback for both robots under a year. “We’re very thrilled with that,” he said.
The cobots’ ability to be easily moved and reprogrammed for additional processes, with easy changes of end-of-arm tooling, lets Tool Gauge look at a wide range of tasks where cobot advantages can improve processes and output.
For instance, traditional robots on injection molding machines could be replaced with collaborative robots, and cobots could tend presses and other machining tasks, as well as final assembly.
As easy as it is to move the cobots to new applications, engineer Ouzts is looking forward to bringing in more Universal Robots to take on additional high-volume jobs, including one for riveting and assembly.
“One particular part requires 20 rivets to be installed, and since it’s so high-volume, we immediately saw an application for a robot right there,” he said. “We can have a semi-automatic rivet gun attached to the end of the arm that can do all the riveting for us. We plan on doing this at the injection mold press, so this part never has to leave that area for secondary operations.”
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