Coexisting with Robots

The picture is still a little hazy when it comes to adopting robots on shop floors. Would they really be a great assistance to humans or eventually replace them? Here’s the value addition robotics can bring to the cutting tools industry and the pitfalls to watch out for…

The rise of the robots is pervasive across all verticals, including the cutting tools industry. As more and more manufacturers turn to leaner processes, robotics have been seen as a way to increase productivity, improve precision and reduce labor costs.

The use of robots is steadily growing. In the United States alone, more than 34,000 robotic systems were introduced in 2016.

In particular, the cutting tools industry has been using robotics to take over the repetitive tasks once done by humans. Tasks such as manual loading, checking and removal of tools and materials. Some manufacturers are even using robotics to work 24/7, taking their production to a ‘lights out’ level with minimal input from humans.

When robots go wrong

Probably the most famous case of robotics not meeting expectations are at Tesla, with a fully robotic system managing the production of Tesla’s Model 3. The process simply didn’t work and Tesla was unable to deliver the volume of cars it had promised.

After a dismal first quarter in 2018, Elon Musk was forced to bring in humans to replace the robots. In Musk’s own words, “Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake… humans are underrated.”

Tesla’s big mistake was not in automating, but in not considering its whole supply chain and planning appropriately. While parts of its automated processes were increasing its production as promised, the chain as a whole was not. In the end, there were production bottlenecks down the supply chain. It didn’t matter how fast one part of the process was completed, if the next part of the process couldn’t keep up.

What we, in the cutting tools industry, can learn from Tesla is that consideration needs to be given to how the entire system works; what connects with what and where the dependencies are. There’s no point being faster at one end of the process if the next step can’t keep up.

When robots go right

In contrast, Fraisa – a Swiss-based business that offers its customer a complete range of solid round tools with endmills, drills and taps – shifted to lights out production for 50 hours a week with surprising results.

Not only did it increase its productive hours from 105 per week to 150 per week (per machine), it also reduced its operation costs by half. Workers retained their salary and the business invested more time in upskilling them in other manufacturing processes. The company now has a more engaged and skilled workforce who focus on value-added work rather than monitoring manual processes. It has meant less shift work, more family-friendly work hours and a win-win-win for customers, the business and its workers.

Fraisa’s success comes from ensuring its machines are fully connected to its ERP systems, so that efficiencies can be monitored throughout its entire supply chain.

It’s not set and forget

Other bottlenecks may occur through lack of in-house programming skills. While one’s general labor costs may be cut, extra hours need to be allowed for programming. Either one needs to employ specialized robotic programmers or invest in a system that translates their requirements. Robots are here to support the humans in the cutting tool industry and beyond. In return, robots need planning, monitoring and programming support from us humans to be their best.

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