Based in Tacoma, WA, Tool Gauge manufactures precision metal and plastic components for the aerospace industry. Like a lot of U.S. manufacturers, the company faces two main challenges: beating overseas competitors and containing staffing costs in a tight labor market.
To meet increasing demand, Jim Lee, Tool Gauge’s general manager, had been looking to hire as many as 100 new employees that simply weren’t available in the tight Pacific Northwest labor market. “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 explains.
Not only was it difficult for Tool Gauge to hire people, the tasks they needed to accomplish were hard to do, particularly dispensing adhesive into extruded plastic parts. “The area the glue needs to be applied in is incredibly narrow, so over time, operators were seeing fatigue in their hands. Scrap rates were also high,” says Steve Ouzts, a manufacturing engineer at Tool Gauge.
To solve that problem, the company invested in a pair of collaborative robots from Universal Robots. Lee describes the three key advantages of UR’s collaborative robots. “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 floor 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.”
The robots were deployed on both the metal and the plastic parts lines. On the metal line, for example, a journeyman machinist was being employed simply to pull delicate copper parts out of a CNC machine and 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, holds them up in front of a dryer, and places them into individual cardboard cells.
“When we put the Universal Robot in place, that was a $9,000 savings [in labor] on the very first order, and we expect to run that multiple times in the future,” says Lee, who adds that the machinist can now focus on higher-value projects, such as setting up and programming the CNC machines.
In the injection molding department, a UR5 robot picks up plastic parts and moves them through an adhesive dispensing system. This task used to require four operators to produce about 200 units per day. Now, one operator and the cobot produce 400 units per day. What’s more, the scrap rate has decreased from 15 percent to just 3 percent.
With the cobots, the company was able to cut its need for 100 new employees in half, while hiring workers for jobs they want. “We found out that the people who were doing the jobs that the robot would do were really happy not to have to do those jobs anymore,” notes Lee. “We’ll be ordering a lot more cobots, because people enjoy working next to them. They’re just fantastic.”
Tool Gauge is hardly the only manufacturer to achieve dramatic benefits with robots. Companies around the world are increasingly using the technology. Between 203 and 2018, the global stock of robots rose by 65 percent, to 2.4 million units. For the same period of time, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a positive impact on the job market: Employment in the automotive industry—the largest adopter of robots—increased by 22 percent from 824,400 to 1,005,000 jobs.
“The impact of automation on employment is not in any respect different from previous waves of technology-driven change,” says Milton Guerry, president of the International Federation of Robotics. “The productivity increases and competitive advantages of automation don’t replace jobs—they will automate tasks, augment jobs and create new ones.”
As U.S. manufacturers emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, investment in robotics will only increase. Social distancing will require manufacturers to limit the number of workers in a factory at any one time and to space workers out on the line. Robots and automation are the key to producing more with fewer workers.