Implementing Cobots: Working Collaboratively with Robots at Wisconsin Plastics

by Lara Copeland, contributing editor
Plastics Business
WPI Plant Manager Carl Bartle said, “Implementing the cobot allowed us to offer more inspiring work for folks.” Photo courtesy of WPI.

It’s a common joke at parties and a worry among laborers: robots taking over the world. But, employees of all levels at Wisconsin Plastics Inc. (WPI), located in Green Bay, Wisconsin, have embraced change by working in harmony with robots for one year. The contract injection molding company began taking steps to implement a collaborative robot, or what WPI now refers to as a cobot, in January of 2017, shortly after Plant Manager Carl Bartle was hired. “Our motto is ‘We provide innovation,'”” Bartle said, “and a few of us at WPI were excited by how innovative these robots are.” Wanting to test the waters, the company owner, the vice president of operations and Bartle visited a factory that had already successfully implemented the use of a cobot. “That’s when we first started realizing how high-tech and helpful they truly are,” he said.

Following the plant tour, the team began discussing the possibility of incorporating a cobot at their facility. “We were able to look at the cost justification right away and determine that the labor savings and efficiency improvements were going to return our investment very quickly,” Bartle stated. He also pointed out that by installing a cobot, WPI would be able to provide more line employees with stimulating work where they’d be able to utilize their skills and expertise more frequently. “It all boils down to trying to remove the redundant, motion-intensive tasks from our talent’s job description,” he added. “It not only helps to prevent injuries, but our employees are more fulfilled with their work.”

The team saw an opportunity to use a cobot on the multi-step assemblies that required human interaction and therefore ran the risk of error, production bottlenecks and frustrated employees. “These offline assemblies tend to be slower because there’s nothing driving the rate other than the people running the line,” Bartle explained. He said that by implementing a cobot, perhaps they could bring one of the assembly lines back into the injection plant, attach the cobot to the presses and use it to not only drive the rhythm but also to help get the processes simplified to the point where assembly could be done within the press cycle time. “We focused our energy on the toughest assembly – we figured we could either try something easy and cheer when we’re successful, or we could try something really hard, and then really get excited if we could make it work.”

Looking to provide more gainful employment for line workers, WPI decided to include a cobot on a line that had two employees on the injection side making the plastic components, while the assembly side had four more people working on it. Bartle reported that the rates on the assembly side varied depending on the day of the week, which shift was working and who was assigned to it. “When humans are setting a part on the fixture repeatedly all day long, it gets tiring and boring and often results in inconsistencies in the number of parts we get out per hour and per day,” he said. “Implementing the cobot allowed us to offer more inspiring work for folks.”

WPI’s collaborative robot is affectionately named Laverne. Photo courtesy of WPI.

By May 2017, WPI had purchased a cobot – affectionately named Laverne. Next, the company hired an integration team to help determine how to incorporate Laverne with the press it would be running on. This press was an older machine, and the overhead picking robot was an older piece of technology. As Bartle explained, “This required some really talented individuals to help us figure out how to get the old technology integrated with the new technology.” The team worked to determine the fixturing, set the timing associated with that fixturing and make sure everything was in place at the proper point in time. The company now runs a Universal Robot with its standard machine robot to pick, place and pad print parts as part of its human assembly line.

Once the cobot was fully integrated, Bartle said they turned it loose on the assembly floor to let the machine operators and the assembly personnel get involved. “We wanted them to tell us what they thought about the cobot,” he said, “and that’s where it got really exciting.” At first, the assemblers and operators were what Bartle described as “shy.” He elaborated, “They were worried about the robot taking over their future, but once they realized that it was just there to take over the duller tasks – tasks that are repetitive and don’t require any skills or talent to complete – they realized they could then focus on the more complex tasks, like quality control inspection and the actual assembly itself.” The employees then were excited to work with the cobot, and they shared their enthusiasm with Bartle.

Several WPI employees have come forward and asked about buying more cobots, offering ideas on where to put them. “The ingenuity coming from the shop floor is fantastic,” Bartle said. The presence of the current cobot has been a catalyst for more automation projects. “They’re realizing that it’s not here to replace anyone, but it’s helping them improve their individual skill sets while also allowing them to focus on other tasks that require talent.”

In addition to the boosted morale, the company has seen tremendous results in efficiency. So far, the cobot has increased throughput for the assembly line by 25 percent, in addition to allowing WPI to reassign three assemblers per shift. “With the cobot on the shop floor, we’ve been able to take the machine operators and promote them to assemblers,” Bartle responded. “I was able to bring the two people assigned to the two machines running parts, plus another four people on the assembly line in our other building, down to three people.” The three reassigned employees were shifted to other necessary lines and projects.

“As a plant manager, I have to make sure that I’m applying an individual’s skills accordingly and not wasting their expertise on picking up a part, setting it down and pushing a button.” Bartle said that such experiences are never good for job satisfaction or product quality. Moreover, from a labor-saving perspective, the robot is much more cost-efficient.

“The engineering team and I had a basic concept for this cobot,” Bartle continued, “but it wasn’t until it hit the floor that things dramatically improved.” He explained that employees drove the line set-up and still are constantly coming up with new ideas. “We hear suggestions about positioning, moving the conveyor, flipping the robot to run the other direction – all sorts of things to shave a few seconds off the line and add consistency to the product.”

WPI purchased a collaborative robot in May 2017. Photo courtesy of WPI.

In the future, the company is thinking about bringing in more cobots to do specific and simple tasks, such as visual inspection. “The robots have cameras that can be mounted on them to look at the part, adjust it and look for basic defects,” Bartle clarified. WPI also is wanting to utilize robots for part sorting and packaging assistance. “We currently are looking at how we can utilize a cobot to scan and pick cases coming down a conveyor before moving them to the correct outbound product lines.” Future cobots also may be integrated into offline assembly processes. Bartle said they’ve looked at utilizing smaller cobots to put screws in products or for placement of parts onto a fixture.

In 2017, MAPP presented WPI with a third-place Innovation Award for Automation Deployment. As Bartle said, “everyone was thrilled,” and the award is displayed in the front office. “The people who were involved in getting the line established are pretty proud of the fact that they were engaged in this project, and they enjoy the idea of being involved in the future now that they realize the robots will not replace anybody – that the robot is here to help us.”

As a plant manager, Bartle thinks cobots are the way of the future because they drive cadence and keep employees focused. “It’s nice because the robot keeps things going while still allowing people on the shop floor to have their conversations, but they don’t have those pauses or frustrations when placing something on the fixture that won’t align properly. If we can implement more of these, our labor efficiencies are going to go way up. It is then that we can really dive into more complicated tasks where we need those human skill sets – we’re not wasting those anymore.”