thyssenkrupp Bilstein Addresses Labor Shortage, Expands Production with Fleet of Universal Robots
THE SHORT STORY:
Nine UR10 collaborative robots deployed at the manufacturer’s plant in Hamilton, Ohio, have opened new avenues of growth for the company manufacturing high-tech suspension solutions for the automotive industry. By automating hard-to-staff tasks such as machine tending, assembly, and product inspection, the cobots optimize production and provide a better work environment. This has enabled thyssenkrupp Bilstein’s to expand its business without relying on hiring additional workers in an area with low unemployment. Future rollout plans include an additional 40 UR cobots.
thyssenkrupp Bilstein was facing an increase in customer demands combined with fast-changing product requirements. The company needed to keep its manufacturing processes lean and flexible and could not grow at the desired rate by simply hiring more people. The manufacturer had also made a commitment to its existing workforce to decrease ergonomically unfavorable tasks.
Aldo Albieri, Operations Manager at thyssenkrupp Bilstein, first discovered the potential of Universal Robots as he visited small family-owned machine shops where manufacturers with little or no robotics experience were automating even complex tasks with cobots. “They didn’t use safety caging and the cobots were placed on wheels and moved between tasks. That was when things really clicked,” says the operation manager, who since then has overseen the implementation of a new UR cobot at Bilstein’s Hamilton location every other month for almost two years.
The operations manager doesn’t hesitate to call it a “revolution” when he describes the fast rollout of Universal Robots’ collaborative robot arms throughout the Ohio plant. “It happened at an incredibly fast pace with us evolving rapidly from trial-and-error in the beginning, using vendors to do the machine integration,” says Albieri, but he soon realized that in-sourcing the cobot deployments was the way to go. Albieri’s Industry 4.0 team that managed the cobot applications investigated other options but he says, “We decided to partner with one type of cobot—and that’s when we picked our first cobot with Universal Robots. We realized that UR had the most advanced solution for more precise pick-and-place. The cobot is easy to maintain and program – and presents the best ratio of speed and repetition.”
Bilstein’s internal Industry 4.0 group has now deployed nine UR10 cobots, the largest of the UR models with 51-inch range and 22-pound payload. A tenth UR10 is used as a test model for future applications. “We are planning to implement about another forty cobot applications in our organization,” says Albieri, explaining how the company came up with the naming concept for the new cobot colleagues. “We needed a system that could sequentially be applied to forty-five to fifty cobots and decided to have some fun with it by naming them after U.S. presidents,” he says with a smile. The cobot fleet now spans from George Washington to John Tyler.
COBOTS TEAM UP IN ASSEMBLY APPLICATION
One of the most eye-catching applications at the Hamilton plant features the James Monroe and John Quincy Adams cobots working in tandem assembling thyssenkrupp’s Active Damping System (ADS) dampers. The multi-step cycle starts by Monroe picking up an innertube that it feeds to a punch machine and then places on a transfer fixture where Adams picks it up and loads it into a “marriage station” where it grabs an outer-tube, marries them together, and puts them on the exit chute.
100 PERCENT INSPECTION
Another task now automated is quality inspection, where four cobots do gauge inspection and check the post-fill crimp and final parts assembly. “When we did the gauge inspection before, we would check two parts every one or two hours to make sure we were still where we thought, but now we have 100 percent inspection,” says Doug McIe, Manufacturing Engineer at thyssenkrupp Bilstein. The cobot deployed in the final assembly is equipped with a Cognex camera and moves swiftly between inspection points to make sure that all components are in the right position and that the label is applied correctly and is readable. “Every single part that comes is checked and if it fails, the robot actually rejects it in the process,” explains McIe.
10-14 MONTHS ROI
Since Bilstein started to bring the cobot automation in-house, the ROI on the UR cobots has improved. “We have projects with both longer and shorter ROIs,” says Albieri. “But our comfort zone is a payback period of about 10-14 months to justify the investment. Cobots are definitely a quicker return of investment than traditional robots.”
Freeing up labor to work on other tasks plays a significant role in delivering the fast ROI. “The UR cobots gave us the opportunity to grow, expand, create more jobs, and move our most valuable resources— our human resources—into new projects, where the know-how was most needed,” says Albieri. “If we relied only on hiring new people, we would never be able to expand three times the size we originally had. The cobots have opened a new avenue of growth for us, while we’ve been able to retain existing workforce. No worker will lose their job to a robot.”
NO PRIOR ROBOTICS EXPERIENCE
The engineering team developing the cobot applications did not have any prior robotics experience. “We started by doing simple pick-and-place tasks to get the ball rolling,” says McIe. “Next was figuring out the interface with the machines, it was a bit harder but once we got it done, it spread really quickly and we started seeing applications all over the plant that we could almost copy-paste.” Process Engineer Jordan Osterholt explains how going through the free UR Academy training modules on the UR website was instrumental in the developing phase. “I would do the tour of how to program the robot and walk straight over to our test robot and apply what I learned,” he says.
TESTING NEW APPLICATIONS WITH UR+ SOFTWARE
The demo robot is on wheels so it can simply be rolled up machine-side to test a task. “We can plug the cobot into a regular 110V outlet and start testing right away,” explains McIe. “With a traditional industrial robot, we would have to first drill holes and bolt it to the floor. This saves us a lot of time.” In addition to deploying a test robot to develop new applications, Bilstein also uses the RoboDK software, certified through the UR+ platform to be plug-and-play with UR cobots. “The software simulations really help us figure out if our cycle time is going to be accurate enough that it’s worth prototyping the tooling and getting it out there,” says McIe. “We can put the effort in on the computer screen, and when we deliver it, it’s almost ready to go.”
The Industry 4.0 team is now working on inverting two UR10 cobots on a UR+ certified 7th axis range extender from Vention, and is planning to continue the fast-paced rollout, introducing a new cobot on the shop floor every other month. “There are just so many opportunities out there,” concludes Albieri. “The sky is the limit.”