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issue: December 2006 APPLIANCE Magazine

Factory Automation & Material Handling
The Machinery of Lean Automation

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by Leanna Skarnulis, Contributing Editor

Lean has caught on, and the appliance industry is turning to new assembly automation/material handling solutions to integrate Lean on the factory floor.

The TSP 6000 Turret Stockpicker from Crown Equipment Corporation (New Bremen, Ohio, U.S.) recently won the IDEA 2006 Silver Award presented by the Industrial Design Society of America (IDSA). Crown radically redesigned its turret truck to regain dominance in the market. The Turret operates in narrow aisles to reach racks as high as 38 feet. New features include both front- and side-facing seat positions, and the new model is said to provide greater comfort and security.

While some appliance makers, such as Maytag and its new owner, Whirlpool, have embraced the lean manufacturing philosophy, lean has been slow to catch on in some parts of the appliance industry. The thinking in some parts of the industry has been that lean might work for the automotive industry, but let’s wait and see before doing anything rash.
But that is changing. The lean manufacturing philosophy and its offspring, lean automation, are accelerating to drive change in appliance assembly automation and material handling. OEMs, squeezed by mounting global competition, strive to eliminate every bit of waste by reducing plant downtime and errors, automating manual tasks and reducing parts inventories. Lesser drivers of change are impacting assembly automation and material handling as well, including safety and ergonomics, flexibility and the need for product tracking.

Going Lean

“Lean manufacturing is one of the biggest trends in manufacturing and affects not only the appliance industry but virtually all industries,” says Mark Dinges, product manager, Material Flow Automation Technologies, Bosch Rexroth Corporation (Buchanan, Michigan, U.S.). “Today, lean manufacturing is most commonly associated with manual production systems. While manual production systems may be the optimal assembly solution for some applications, other applications are better served with a mix of manual and automated systems, and still others may benefit most from a completely automated approach. Variables such as Takt time, cycle time, part size, and even local labor costs must be considered.”
He notes that advantages appliance producers are looking for in their assembly systems include modularity, flexibility and quick changeover time. One solution he cites is the Rexroth line of TS assembly conveyors, which are non-synchronous, pallet-based assembly conveyors. The modular, flexible design makes it easy to combine manual and automated workstations on the same assembly system, or to reconfigure or expand the system as assembly requirements change.  
Automation is essential to lean operations, according to Tim Crider, Midwest operations manager, Stapla Ultrasonics (Wilmington, Massachusetts, U.S.). “The global market and competition are driving automation. If U.S. companies want to stay competitive, they have to go to automation to make their processes leaner and quicker, and ensure quality control, or move their operation to less expensive geographical regions.”
“Just-in-time and lean manufacturing still dominate,” says Joe Ciringione, North American sales and product manager for Igus, (Providence, Rhode Island, U.S). “None of our customers wants to carry inventory or spare parts. They need to be able to access them when they need them.”
He adds that another lean trend is OEM demands for value-added products. Igus, which makes Energy Chain cable carriers and Chainflex high-flex cables, is responding with cable already installed inside the cable carrier and with all the connectors and accessories attached. “It’s a turnkey item. They don’t have to use their own people to assemble it.”

Automating to Reduce Labor Costs

Suppliers say that OEMs continually seek to reduce labor costs, sometimes to the extent of getting the worker out of the equation altogether. “We see the control of labor costs as being the key in fastening operations,” says Steve Rogers, general sales, Gesipa Fasteners USA (Lawrenceville, New Jersey, U.S.). “Gesipa employs automation to the blind riveting process, thereby reducing direct labor and ultimately the in-place costs for the fasteners installed. This is especially important in the U.S. market where we’re competing for jobs that are moving overseas to markets with lower labor costs. We see productivity gains of as much as 50 percent by operators using Gesipa’s automated feed riveting systems.”
Robotics systems are increasingly used to handle manual tasks, transport parts and materials, work in hazardous environments, and achieve precision. Fanuc Robotics America, Inc. (Rochester Hills, Michigan, U.S.), demonstrated a two-phase intelligent assembly cell at the 2006 International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS). The M-710iC robot features six axes of motion, an extremely large work envelope, slim profile, and small footprint. Multiple mounting methods including floor, ceiling, angle, and wall, enabling users to have better access to unusual work pieces.  In addition, the FoundryPRO option makes the entire robot IP67 protected for operation in harsh environments.  
“This is an exciting new robot based on its capabilities and flexibility,” Virgil Wilson, Fanuc Robotics product manager, tells APPLIANCE. “It’s rated ‘best in class’ for speed, and has one of the largest work envelopes in its class.  In addition, its compact size, and ability to flip over and work behind itself maximizes flexibility for work cell design and saves valuable floor space.”


An intelligent parts feeder, equipped with 2-D vision, was one of the featured robots in Fanuc Robotics’ demonstration of an intelligent two-phase assembly cell at the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) held in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., in September.

Borrowing Ideas from Automotive

One thing the automotive industry has gotten right is lean manufacturing. Appliance manufacturers stand to gain from the downturn in the auto industry as suppliers like Ingersoll Rand shift more of their attention from the auto industry and bring their lean expertise to bear in the appliance market.
“I think the appliance industry is taking a lot of cues from the motor vehicle and aerospace industries,” says Michael Medaska, business manager for the Specialty Channel of Ingersoll Rand Company’s Industrial Technologies Sector (Annandale, New Jersey, U.S.). “As it relates to our business, which is precision fastening and ergonomic handling, those are industries that for a long time have seen the advantages of going to more automated systems and more tightly controlled processes. For example, a car manufacturer measures and records the exact torque applied to a lot of different bolts on a transmission for safety and liability reasons. So we’ve developed systems and software that allow them to actually record and output that torque or angle data to a database and archive it forever. In the unlikely event of a field issue with that specific transmission, that manufacturer could produce hard evidence that they applied torque X to bolt Y on date Z and prove that the component was assembled properly.”
He sees applications for appliance assembly, even though there are fewer critical joints involved. “With SPC or monitoring tools in our software you can actually watch your fastening process over time to ensure you are inside your upper and lower process control limits for torque or angle. With the hard electronic data in front of you, you have the ability to adjust your parameters to get a more consistent process, and then you’re avoiding re-work, reducing the number of defects in your process, and reducing warranty claims.  That’s the kind of thing automotive companies have being doing for a while. We’ve benefited from the adoption of the same technology by appliance manufacturers.”
Dick Montague, director of Custom Engineered Systems, FKI Logistex (Danville, Kentucky, U.S.), suggests another idea appliance manufacturers might borrow. “In the automotive industry, we already have people-moving conveyances, and I would anticipate people-moving in appliance manufacturing as well. The person moves on a floor conveyor at the same speed as the assembly line as opposed to walking along. It’s safer and more efficient.”

Safe at Any Speed

Meeting lean objectives by taking time out of assembly or material handling cannot be accomplished at the expense of safety. “Speed is one of the advantages appliance producers are looking for,” says Medaska of Ingersoll Rand. “They want to know: how can you help me get faster at what I’m doing today, how can you improve my line speed by reducing the number of manual steps for an operator by allowing an automation tool, ergonomic handling device, or fixtured fastening system to take over some of that work. And while speed is a key one, ergonomics and safety come up again and again.  If you can change or reduce the amount of time an operator is bending over or lifting a heavy load by automating that process, that’s what is really going to drive ergonomic improvements and potentially reduce lost-time accidents. And it will increase overall throughput and quality.”
Medaska adds that Ingersoll Rand sees the global appliance industry as a big growth market for the company. “We see the appliance assembly market as being critical for the success of our new IQV Series cordless tools, which were designed specifically for assembly and production environments.”
He believes appliance manufacturers are getting smarter about the need for investment in systems and devices to improve operator ergonomics and productivity. “We’ve seen a movement towards the types of custom and off-the-shelf ergonomic handling solutions we offer that allow the operator to pick, place and move appliances or components without guesswork or strain, improving ergonomics, improving the repeatability of the process, and improving throughput.”
Manual material handling is the leading cause of workers compensation claims. “Safety and ergonomics are important to our customers,” says Montague of FKI Logistex. “With appliances, you’re often dealing with big pieces that are heavy, bulky and dangerous to handle. Automation makes work less dangerous. It can be as simple as using robots instead of manual palletizing, or using conveyors to move parts and materials instead of moving them manually or with a fork truck.”

The simple modular design of TGW-Ermanco’s chain conveyor for unit loads is said to greatly speed installation, improve performance and reduce inventory of spare parts

Precision and Process Controls

Smart tools enable producers to achieve greater precision in their assembly operations, thereby reducing waste from errors and rework. For example, Gesipa recently introduced a line of riveting tools with a process control feature that alerts the operator via flashing green lights on the tool when a good rivet is installed correctly. Conversely a flashing red light means that either the rivet was installed incorrectly or that the mechanical function of the rivet was not within parameters, indicating a bad rivet. “The result of employing this technology is fewer bad fastenings in the assembly operation,” says Rogers of Gesipa. “The overall result is higher quality and reduced costs for rework of incorrectly assembled products.”
Another example is the new blind rivet nut setting tool from Dixon Automatic Tool, Inc. (Rockford, Illinois, U.S.). “This is a fully automated tool that applies a fastener in thin sheet metal,” says Brian Droy, vice president of sales. “It will compete with some of the hydraulic rivet nut setting tools on the market. The Dixon blind rivet nut tool is fully controlled with servo and pneumatics.  The system has complete process sensing to verify that the fastener is installed properly from a quality standpoint.  The Dixon tool inserts the blind rivet nut from one side, so you don’t have to get around both sides of the product to use the tool; this is a huge advantage when working with large sheet metal components.”

Product Tracking

“RFID is the buzzword of the past few years,” says Montague of FKI Logistex. “Retailers increasingly expect manufacturers to provide RFID tagging and ID.”
Retailers’ demands, along with adoption of the Electronic Product Code (EPC) and improved RFID technology, are driving appliance producers to examine how to get the most from integrating RFID systems throughout the supply chain to improve efficiencies, accelerate the flow of materials and achieve ROI. FKI Logistex offers solutions for the warehouse and distribution market with services and products needed to handle multiple ID technologies, including pallet license plates, case tags and singulated items.


The compact Lift Stik from Presto Lifts distributes the load evenly over four oversized casters to roll easily over thresholds and uneven floors. A hand-held push-button remote allows the operator to lift or lower the platform from any side of the unit and at dual speeds for safe, efficient control. Ergonomic, contoured sponge grip handles can be adjusted to accommodate operators of different heights.

Other Trends

“Two trends that we see in the appliance industry are faster cycle times and an increase in product and process complexity,” says Dinges of Bosch Rexroth. “The first is the shift to one common assembly conveyor that is designed to handle the entire product assembly process.  In the past, small sub-assembly lines were used to feed WIP parts onto a larger final assembly line. In order to have a common conveying platform, as well as reduce overall cycle time, manufacturers today require larger and heavier conveyors that can accommodate the entire assembly process.  
“The second is that, as product assemblies continue to become more complex, the total number of fasteners used in the assembly process continues to grow as well. Additionally, the size of fasteners is becoming smaller. To maximize uptime, customers today require assembly systems that are ‘friendly’ to fasteners and other small components.”
Lori Logan, marketing manager for Deprag (Lewisville, Texas, U.S.), agrees that joints and fasteners continue to get smaller, and adds that the materials are getting lighter. “Also, we have noticed that the sheet metal assemblies, such as in refrigerator assemblies, still have problems because of a high driving torque and a relatively low seating torque. We approach such assembly problems by using either an electric screwdriver or our air-operated Sensomat screwdriver, which was specifically designed for such special assembly requirements.”

Leaner Relationships?

Many suppliers are poised to provide lean solutions for customers, but when lean is all about cutting costs, it can weaken relationships between suppliers and OEMs. “All appliance producers are looking for lower costs and lower investments,” says Droy of Dixon. “It’s not typically which machine builder or which supplier they’re buying from; decisions are based more on costs, which has made it an extremely competitive market for equipment suppliers.”
Droy explains that his company typically sells a machine either directly to the OEM or through another machine/assembly system supplier.  Dixon sees that the OEM is less often telling the system supplier which equipment company to use. The system supplier makes the decision, and the decision is often based on meeting the project budget.  “The end user isn’t having as much say in whose equipment is on the assembly line,” Droy says.
More than ever, he says, it is up to the supplier company to educate end-users, the appliance OEMs, about the quality advantages and long-term savings that can be realized from using their equipment.

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