American Metal Manufacturer: A Pick & Place Robot Can Save $150K+ a Year
Every year, about 20 million people worldwide go through cataract surgery. As the most prevalent surgical procedure, it requires a high volume of medical components to be produced.
Some of these components – needles used to flush the patients’ eyes – find their way through the metal finishing company American Bright Works facility in Minnesota, U.S. Each day at the site, between 3-4 people are working to anodize needles in various colors – a job needed so doctors can quickly identify the right ones during surgery. The anodizing process is a manual job of dipping the needles by hand into an acidic solution while applying current for a short time and repeating over and over.
For a long time, it wasn’t an issue finding people to do the job, according to the company’s general manager, Kevin Ford. But as “the great resignation” is taking its toll on manufacturers across the U.S., that is no longer the case:
“It’s the most challenging time I have ever seen to hire entry-level people – and the new employee turnover has become incredibly high. My existing staff is solid and dependable but as we grow, we need to add more people and they just don’t stick around or even show up,” Kevin says.
“A couple of years ago, we’d still have 2-3 out of every 4 new hires working with us after a year. But now it is much more of a revolving door with a successful conversion from contract to hire being the abnormality not the norm. It’s a lot of work to hire and train new people and it’s wearing the staff out,” he adds.
To stabilize the situation, Kevin decided to look into automation.
Quick payback on automation – but where to begin?
The business case for automation seemed obvious to Kevin Ford: If a robot could do the needle anodizing job of three to four people, he would not only save more than 150,000-200,000 USD per year. He would also free up those people’s time to take on the many other higher skilled tasks needed.
“Automation really was a no-brainer. A robot could also provide us with a more consistent output and volume, apart from the initial cost savings, which we could pass on to our customers,” Kevin says.
Getting started on automating the process, however, seemed daunting at first.
American Bright Works already had two robots to help with production, but like most other manufacturers with around 50 employees, none of the people are experts in programming and installing new robots.
“We had limited knowledge about what the best type of robot solution would be, and who the best companies to provide it were. We weren’t sure if it was going to be a 50,000 USD or 300,000 USD investment,” he says.
A new approach made automation an easy decision
Kevin Ford’s first idea was to visit one of the major American trade shows for robotics and automation to get a better idea of the company’s options. But after visiting several very similar booths, listening to salespeople, and seeing their robots on display, he left more unsure of who to work with then before.
“To someone who isn’t a robot expert, all robotics companies look the same at a trade show. The robots all make you a cup of coffee or pick and place various objects. You end up with so many unanswered questions. Of all these companies, who is the best fit and how do we decide who to work with? How should we evaluate their solutions, so we can feel confident in what we’re getting? That is difficult,” Kevin says.
That was when he met HowToRobot and was introduced to a new approach: Sourcing automation through an online marketplace. After walking the trade show, the idea seemed attractive to him, and he decided to try it out.
“I think the concept is really good. I like how I can gather all information in one place and tell a select group of potential automation suppliers at once what I need. That saves me a lot of time and confusion of finding and approaching companies individually,” Kevin says.
HowToRobot presented Kevin Ford to a simple and structured approach to finding the right automation solution. With the help of an advisor from HowToRobot, he documented the anodizing process and his automation goals in a few simple steps and used the digital platform to notify matching automation suppliers about his request. In response, he received tailored proposals on pick and place robot solutions from six different integrators, each explaining how they would automate the anodizing process. At no cost, Kevin had gotten a clear overview of the market – and discovered the huge price differences that were otherwise difficult to know about: The costliest solution (325,000 USD) was over three times as expensive as the most affordable one (99,000 USD).
After a few calls with suppliers, the right decision became clear.
“Having the costs listed side by side, including the most important parameters to evaluate each solution, made the decision so much easier. It became clear to us that the affordable solution met all our requirement, had the smallest footprint and was simple to interact with. It would also have payback time of less than two years,” Kevin said.
“HowToRobot really helped us understand our automation options, compare them meaningfully and make the right decision for our business,” he concludes.