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Robots on the Job
Automation in manufacturing is here to stay, and two Minnesota firms are using robotics with great success
By Sarah Asp Olson
September 2015

Jerry Bienias, VP of Operations at Donnelly Custom Manufacturing, Alexandria, Minnesota
( Jerry Bienias, VP of operations, Donnelly Custom Manufacturing, standing next to a Baxter robot)

Walk onto the production floor at Donnelly Custom Manufacturing and you’re likely to see plenty of friendly faces. The Alexandria-based manufacturer has about 220 employees and recently welcomed two new faces to the team in the form of Baxter robots. 

Baxter is a three-foot tall (5’10” - 6’3” with pedestal), two-armed robot used for simple industrial jobs such as loading, unloading, sorting, and handling of materials. But he (and his same-named twin) has also got a bit of a personality. 

“He has a face and eyes that emote,” says Donnelly president Ron Kirscht. “He recognizes you [and registers] understanding, surprise or confusion with what you want or what just happened. I actually think when you walk on the floor when you first see Baxter operating it kind of stops you.”

What Baxter doesn’t stop is production. In fact, the two robots together have been a boon for the company that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. While Baxter takes over more repetitive, but necessary, tasks, employees are free to grow and perform more highly skilled tasks. 

“One of the beauties of Baxter is he doesn’t have a brain,” says Jerry Bienias, vice president of operations. “You want to use humans for things that require cognitive thinking or to be able to use the brain, where Baxter can do things that are redundant very well.”

Donnelly and neighboring firm, Alexandria Industries, exemplify how Minnesota manufacturers are using robotics to combat worker shortage, increase productivity and even spur innovation. Read on for a look at just how these two companies have put robots to work for them. 

Traditional Robots Make Good
Even before Baxter came on board, Donnelly was no stranger to automation on the floor. Starting in the early 2000s, the company began adding robots to its 35 injection molding machines. Now, all but three machines have some automation attached, though, as a short-run manufacturer, cost almost became a barrier to entry into automation.

Robots Aid in Minnesota Manufacturing

“We have 2,000 discrete parts we make off of 1,800 different active molds,” says Kirscht. “If you’re spending $1,000 on each one [for unique end of arm tooling] you’re talking about between $1.5 million and $2 million in end of arm tooling that you build and develop to integrate with your industrial robots.”

Donnelly’s early adoption of robotics technology noticeably increased speed, precision, and accuracy. 

Donnelly was able to get past the cost barrier by getting creative. Donnelly’s engineers developed three different styles for universal end of arm tooling that can be integrated with each machine’s robots and be used to pick the majority of parts. 

“That was one of the concepts that was instrumental in us being able to move towards getting industrial robots on our injection molding machines,” says Kirscht. “All of a sudden you create a scenario where you take something that was a cost inhibitor in short-term manufacturing [and] you say economically this makes sense.”

The innovation paid off. Donnelly’s early adoption of robotics technology noticeably increased speed, precision, and accuracy. 

“We have a measurement we use called People-to-Standard ratio,” says Bienias. “It’s the hours you earn for what you’re running compared to what you actually incurred. Over the last five years as we’ve been incorporating more and more on press robots, we’ve seen about a 10 percent improvement in our P-to-S ratio. A lot of that is due to being able to use those robots.” 

Customization and Productivity
Less than three miles away, Alexandria Industries has its own robotics history—and its own history of innovation around technology. 

“We’ve always been a company with innovative people doing innovative things, hence our tagline, Demand Innovation,” says Alexandria Industries CEO, Tom Schabel.

The aluminum extrusion company purchased its first robot—Rosie—in 2001. About six years later, it began adding additional automation to its fleet, and also opted to customize the automation cell with the FANUC pick and place machines. 

They started by working closely with a machine tool distributor. 

“We looked at what they had, and it was close to what we were looking for, but didn’t have all the bells and whistles,” says Todd Carlson, Alexandria Industries’ senior manufacturing engineer. “It was designed for a small number of parts, about five to 10 different part numbers. We were looking to put on 70 to 100 part numbers.”

In the end, at Alexandria Industries’ request, the distributor replaced fixed tooling with vision and conveyance systems, allowing for the flexibility and volume the company needed. Now, the majority of the firm’s robots use cameras and conveyors to determine where it can grip a part or how it can hold it in a specific location along the fixture. 

Alexandria Industries currently employs 11 robots that have typically paid back within one year. Carlson notes they continue to boost overall productivity and estimates the company is getting more than 23 hours on an automated machine, versus 18 to 20 hours with a human operator. 

The firm has also been able to add new machines to the floor while making up for understaffing on second and third shifts. Prior to adding robots, five operators could run only five machines. Today, Alexandria Industries can run seven or eight more machines using those same five operators, giving those understaffed shifts a boost in production.  

“Robotics has allowed us to grow our production volumes and capabilities where we otherwise could not have,” says Schabel. “Robotics allows us to keep machines running lights-out, when operators are at lunch or need to step away for a short period. They also generate a constant rhythm in our manufacturing processes as they foster continuous operation regardless of what’s going on around them.”

From Fixed to Flexible
In recent years, both Donnelly and Alexandria Industries have added collaborative robots—or cobots—to their automation teams. 

Donnelly acquired both Baxter machines from Boston-based Rethink Robotics. Rethink’s chief product and marketing officer, Jim Lawton, notes that a lot of their deployments have been to small and medium-sized manufacturers, like Donnelly. 

“Traditional automation is very expensive, and it requires a lot of expertise because you’re doing so much coding and design of a new work cell,” he says. “Not a lot of small companies can afford to have automation engineers or roboticists [on staff] to be able to do this kind of work. By making robots much more accessible to manufacturing engineers, process engineers and process supervisors, it means people who understand the product and understand the manufacturing process can use the automation.”

Rethink’s cobots’ flexibility and user-friendly interface make it possible for staff to teach—not program—the robots by manually moving their arms and hands to different positions. In addition, while some cobots on the market are position controlled, Rethink’s are not. 

“That means the first position needs to be precisely fixed to the sub-millimeter and the second needs to be fixed,” says Lawton. “If you go into most manufacturing environments…things may be more or less the same but more or less isn’t good enough. Our cobots are much more accommodating, and can feel their way into a fixture the same way a human can.” 

Baxter robot at Donnelly Custom Manufacturing, Alexandria, Minnesota 
(Press operator Amy Oberg, waiting for a Baxter robot to put the last piece into a box before she hauls it away. The robot counts as it places the pieces in the box.)

Donnelly has used their Baxter machines for a variety of tasks, making use of Baxter’s wheels that allow him to travel around the shop. “Baxter sees the world,” jokes Kirscht. 

Even though he’s a freer-wheeling sort, Baxter does play nicely with Donnelly’s existing robots, working alongside them and his human coworkers on the line. 

“Where I’ve seen one of our Baxter robots deployed on a press, it’s in conjunction with a traditional robot activated and working on a machine to remove a part from a mold and place it on a conveyor and separate the sprue and runner that can be recycled from the part, then it comes down, and Baxter can do something else with that part,” says Kirscht. 

Alexandria Industries began adding Universal Robotics cobots in late 2013, also attracted by their mobility and flexibility. Unlike Baxter, who looks almost human, UR’s cobots are lightweight, six-axis arms designed to mimic a human’s range of motion and control. They can attach to machines but do not require the use of fencing, and can work independently or in collaboration with human workers. Like Baxter, they’re much easier to program than traditional fixed automation.  
“The user-friendly interface decreases the time required to teach operational sequences to the robot and greatly simplifies the programming,” says Schabel. “Because of our high product mix manufacturing environment, their adaptability offers us huge flexibility when changing programs and which machinists can use it.”

Robots and Innovation
Just as with fixed automation, Baxter has spurred innovation among Donnelly’s human crew. 

“I was just talking to a person who was on the team and he had an operator stop him and say ‘I think if we did this or that we might be able to use Baxter on this job,’” says Bienias. “A lot of people are looking for ways we can use him to make our jobs better.”

Donnelly’s Baxter is now tricked out and customized to meet company-specific needs. 

“We’ve developed what we call a serving platter that we hung off the front of him where all the fixturing that we’re building for different jobs will just key right into that so it’s an easy set up, it pops right into his serving platter and it’s all set,” says Bienias. 

Baxter’s customization doesn’t surprise Rethink Robotics’ Lawton. He’s seen time and again how the flexible little robot has become one of the crew and inspired innovation among staff. 

“I go into a lot of factories that have deployed our robots and it’s not uncommon to see the hat of the local sports team or t-shirt, people hugging the robot,” he says. “Part of what’s required in enabling innovation is for people to be comfortable around the robots and get attracted toward them rather than propelled from them.”

Employees tend to be dazzled by cobots, like Baxter, but even fixed automation can spark enthusiasm in forward-thinking companies. 

“Our employees always want to incorporate new technology into our manufacturing processes and there was excitement and curiosity about how robotics could enhance our production environment,” says Schabel. “They have no fear of robots replacing employees because we’ve always been able to grow our production volume and mix from using new technology.

Carlson also notes that introducing robotics has increased employee marketability within Alexandria Industries, allowing staff to grow as machinists and engineers. Recently the company partnered with Alexandria Technical and Community College to train interested staff as robotics operators. They sent another group to FANUC’s Detroit headquarters to learn the ins and outs of engineering robots. 

“We’re able to take those people and grow them into those positions, increase their value as employees, and increase job satisfaction,” says Carlson. 

But, What About Jobs? 
Neither Donnelly nor Alexandria Industries have lost employees due to automation—in fact, quite the opposite. Still, with the increasing capabilities of robots in manufacturing firms around the state, some still may ask: will robots negatively impact job opportunities for human workers? 

For Kirscht, the answer is a resounding, no. 

“One of the fatal errors that leaders make is to look at change as losing something as opposed to how you can gain through change,” he says. “If the goal of change is a better pathway … in the process of changing, you’re creating opportunities for people to gain. If that’s your approach and philosophy on it, people understand it, they accept that and believe in that and you get voluntary cooperation to move to a better place.” 

Meet Baxter 
(and his brother, Sawyer)

Rethink Robotics’ Baxter is, quite literally, the face of collaborative robots. The company— founded in 2008 by MIT roboticist, Rodney Brooks—aims to fill a gap in robotics used in manufacturing.

“Traditional pieces of automation were doing a very good job at solving a very small part of the problem,” says Jim Lawton, Rethink’s chief product and marketing officer. “They’re used to do things like weld and paint and move big chunks of metal. … But 90 percent of the applications in manufacturing don’t look like that. People need and want efficiency and labor productivity but not at the cost of eliminating flexibility and agility. Rethink Robotics has gone after that specific area.” 

Rethink rolled out its first collaborative robot, Baxter, in 2103. Today, about two-dozen Baxter robots are deployed in Minnesota and Wisconsin, most shipped within the last year. Read on to meet Baxter, and his new brother Sawyer, who will begin shipping in September.  

Base price: $25,000
Height (without pedestal): 3’ 1” 
Weight (without pedestal): 165 pounds 
Maximum reach: 47.6 inches 
Maximum payload: 5 pounds

Baxter excels at a wide variety of tasks, including packing boxes, transferring parts from the line into a box, and loading and unloading parts. He has seven spring-loaded joints on each of his two arms, allowing him ultimate flexibility and agility and multiple ways of completing his learned tasks. He also has sensors that can detect the level of force applied to each joint making him well suited for even delicate tasks. Because he is trained, not programmed, Baxter can be deployed and re-deployed across lines. Baxter’s operating system, Intera 3, is designed to be intuitive and user-friendly for non-technical personnel. 

Base price: $29,000
Weight (without pedestal): 42 pounds 
Maximum reach: 49.6 inches 
Maximum payload: 8.8 pounds

Sawyer is a lighter, smaller robot who can more easily maneuver into tight spaces designed for humans. He has one arm with seven degrees of freedom, and excels at delicate or intricate projects, like circuit or parts testing, where parts need to be inserted precisely with force control. His longer arm, higher payload, increased precision and faster speed make him well suited for high-performance applications. In addition, his embedded vision system enables easier re-deployment and allows the robot to handle many tasks that other robots require add-on cameras to accomplish.

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