Home > Opinion > Talking Points

Molder finds that a robot can fill plant-floor vacancy

Issue: March 2018

The discussion about robots taking jobs away from humans continues. I heard a radio report recently about the U.S. job market being at nearly full employment, and the robots-vs.-human-workers argument crept into the report.

Let’s turn around the argument. What if you cannot find workers to sustain your company’s growth? There should be no question that robots can make up the shortfall.

That is exactly the situation employee-owned Tennplasco Inc. found itself in last year. The Lafayette, Tenn., custom injection molder, located in a rural area about an hour northeast of Nashville, Tenn., has long had difficulty recruiting and retaining workers. To increase productivity and grow, company executives knew they needed to think outside the box.

“We have a lot of Japanese customers and they have taught us the principles of kaizen,” GM Denny Rose said in a telephone interview. Kaizen is a philosophy of continuous improvement for workers and the entire manufacturing process. It was first practiced by Japanese businesses after World War II and made popular in this country by Toyota.

Tennplasco is a Tier 2 supplier of automotive interior parts but also has a good deal of work in the lawn and garden market with parts for tractors and all-terrain vehicles.

Ron Shinn

“Our biggest constraint is people,” he said. “We started looking for the low-hanging fruit. Where can we move somebody, eliminate somebody or make an investment and get the biggest bang for our buck?”

Engineers focused on a high-volume, automotive interior assembly operation that took four people per shift, three shifts per day. The product was a defroster nozzle, molded in two pieces that later had to be snapped together. The assembly process also included welding and the addition of clips, foam and labels.

Rose said 11 of Tennplasco’s 14 injection molding machines are equipped with beam robots to remove parts, but the company had had no experience with robots in secondary operations.

So, plant leaders started talking to suppliers and eventually, five collaborative robot manufacturers made presentations. From there, it was a process of elimination. They settled on a Sawyer cobot from Rethink Robotics.

Tennplasco started talking to suppliers in November 2016 and purchased the robot in February 2017.
How did the start-up go?

“Painless,” Rose said.

“It took a couple of days to get things running,” he said. Bertelkamp Automation Inc., the systems integrator that sold the Sawyer robot, built a mock-up of Tennplasco’s assembly area in its Knoxville, Tenn., facility and worked out the assembly process before delivering the cobot. “It was a plug-and-play operation when Sawyer arrived,” Rose said.

Within two days, the four-person-per-shift assembly operation was being handled by two people, plus Sawyer, per shift. Total investment was about $50,000 and the return on investment (ROI) was about 3.5 months, Rose said.

The two people no longer needed for the assembly operation were transferred elsewhere in the plant.

“The output we are getting from this assembly operation remained the same, but output from other parts of the plant increased with the extra employees,” Rose said.
Sawyer is filling a critical quality-assurance role. It takes photos of every finished component. A human previously handled that final inspection. The robot can recognize an incomplete or incorrect assembly and sounds an alarm.

What did the workers think about giving up some jobs to a robot? Tennplasco is an employee-owned business through an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP). “They knew no one was losing their job,” Rose said. “We explained that some people would be moved to other jobs, but the result would be that we could increase production with the current labor force.

“Because of the ESOP, everyone is real bought-in to what is best for the company,” he said. “At the end of the day, we all own the company.”

Tennplasco is planning to integrate even more robots.

“We have allocated money in this year’s capital expenditures budget for more cobots. We are going to keep pushing in that direction,” Rose said. Most of the cobot projects under consideration are performed by one person, so the ROI will take longer, he said.

Rose said that using cobots could make a good impression when customers visit the plant. “Thinking outside the box has to mean something to the customer,” Rose said.
Tennplasco still recruits human workers for the Lafayette plant as well as its other three molding plants. But Rose said Manar Inc., Tennplasco’s parent company, has asked him to help the other plants with similar cobot projects.

The debate about robots taking jobs away from human workers continues, but getting past it to the realization that robots are just another tool in the factory can result in a competitive edge and plenty of jobs for everyone.

Ron Shinn, editor