Lights out!

Automotive OEM HIROTEC AMERICA is taking the first steps towards lights out manufacturing with robotics

By ·

If you have children of a certain age, you might remember the movie Matilda, which was based on a book of the same name by Roald Dahl. One of my favorite lines involves the cruel headmistress of a rundown elementary school who can see no useful purpose for young children. “My idea of a perfect school,” she says, “is one that has no children in it at all.” 

One of the promises of what are known as disruptive technologies is lights out manufacturing. That is a manufacturing process – or entire manufacturing facility – that could theoretically operate in the dark because, like Miss Trunchbull’s school, no people are required in that operation.

Whether you find that idea exciting or frightening, lights out manufacturing processes is a goal for many manufacturers, including HIROTEC AMERICA, a Tier 1 OEM of weld assembly equipment to leading automotive manufacturers. “Our goal, and it’s a stretch goal, is to get to zero operators for spare parts,” says Gary Krus, vice president of business development (R&D). Indeed, Krus says Hirotec has been talking about the concept of lights out manufacturing during most of his 24 years with the company. While the company has been removing people from its processes where possible for years, using, for instance, robotic welding and other flexible manufacturing tools, the hurdle has always been that the available technology has not yet lived up to the goal. For instance, even if a process at an assembly station could be automated, it still required people to sequence and deliver parts from one station to the next.

Those barriers are beginning to come down, and mobile robotics is one of the reasons why. In one of its U.S. plants, HIROTEC AMERICA has recently gone live with a mobile - piece picking robot to completely automate the black oxide process for spare parts production. The robotic solution involves a mobile, self-driving robot from OTTO and an integrated dual-arm piece-picking robot from Yaskawa Motoman.

Currently parts are still delivered to the work station. Once there, the mobile robot moves into place, the system downloads instructions and then the robotic arms perform the process of dipping parts, moving from bucket to bucket in a timed sequence that coats the parts to provide a corrosion resistant surface. That’s step one. The ultimate goal is for the robots to pick up the parts from the machine shop and then deliver them to the next step in the process. Lights out!

You can read more about this solution here and watch a video of the robot in action here.

It is admittedly a first-step in a low-volume process and there is more to be done. “I think we’re three to five years away from processes like this really catching on, and we’re probably just 75 percent down the road to automating the whole process,” Krus says. “And, realistically, I think we’re probably 20 years away from a robot that can do everything that a human does. Getting there is going to require more vision technologies, more sensing and more computing power.”

At the same time, based on his experience with the black oxide process, Krus is looking for other steps in the overall manufacturing process that are ripe for this type of automation. “I’m not looking to get rid of people – I’ll still need them for maintenance,” Krus says. “What I want is to increase throughput with more flexibility, more timely delivery of parts to the lines and a safer work environment.”

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

Subscribe to Modern Materials Handling Magazine!

Subscribe today. It's FREE!
Find out what the world’s most innovative companies are doing to improve productivity in their plants and distribution centers.
Start your FREE subscription today!

Latest Whitepaper
Material Handling Industry Makes the Digital Transformation
To keep pace with unrelenting e-commerce fulfillment speeds and order volumes, many DC operations have taken significant steps in making the transition to more automated, digital processes.
Download Today!
From the October 2018 Modern Materials Handling Issue
Simplification and consolidation drove the design of a new 1.1-million-square-foot logistics campus in Georgia, including a 713,000-square-foot distribution center.
Labor crisis: Diversity is the answer
Inside look at order fulfillment: Luxottica
View More From this Issue
Subscribe to Our Email Newsletter
Sign up today to receive our FREE, weekly email newsletter!
Latest Webcast
Modern Materials Handling’s Annual Pallet Report
The results of Modern's annual survey of pallet users shows they are highly motivated to find savings and more sophisticated services from their pallet providers. In this exclusive Webcast, we'll examine how Modern's readers are revisiting their assumptions about pallet usage and pallet providers’ offerings.
Register Today!
Goya Foods’ secret ingredient: Lift trucks
The leader in Hispanic food and beverage products puts a variety of lift trucks and racks to work in...
Arvato SCM Solutions: Fashion Logistics
At its Hannover, Germany, facility, e-commerce logistics provider Arvato SCM Solutions is using...

S.narendrakumar & Co. Automates Its Operations
With two automated storage and retrieval systems, the manufacturer of India’s best-selling brand...
Warehouse System Report: A.B. Beverage Racks Up Productivity
A.B. Beverage improved throughput and eliminated a third shift through better warehouse design and a...