Earlier this year President Obama used his tour of the new Conveyor Engineering & Manufacturing plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa to tout his plan to bring manufacturing back to the United States. Politics aside, it was an appropriate site to talk about such a goal because if it happens, conveyor manufacturers are likely to be among the first to experience it.
Conveyors are the material handling backbone of U.S. manufacturing and if Mitch Johnson is right, that backbone is about to get more steel. As director of systems development for Hytrol Conveyor Co. (www.hytrol.com), Johnson is seeing more business come in from U.S. manufacturers after years of dominance by the distribution side of Hytrol’s markets.
“There’s more activity in the manufacturing realm,” he says. “Several of our integrators have come back to us for projects that have been much more complicated and needed more engineering from us because they’re more manufacturing intensive. There’s more demand for accuracy, which means you’re interfacing to a robot, and we have to design a station that will hold certain fixtures in a more accurate position so something can address it.”
That means manufacturers are sharpening their pencils on automation to make conveyors work more efficiently, and the prospect of labor savings adds to the cost effectiveness of such projects. So does modularity, because if manufacturing does come back to the U.S. in force, it won’t be the same. It may not even be the same on a month-to-month basis.
“We got a million dollars worth of work last year because these multiple facilities we did a project for could be put up quickly and could be used in a temporary fashion until they would tear that project down and move it to another facility. That’s why our 24-volt product has been in such demand because it’s reconfigurable.”
This is a different way for manufacturers to do business and that’s why Hytrol is looking at doing business differently—possibly by creating a group or process to handle heavily engineered projects. That’s a different business model that conveyor designers and manufacturers may have to get accustomed to.
“Integrators are starting to come to us with designs that put more of the responsibility on us to get the details done and those are generally manufacturing projects,” Johnson adds. “We need to bolster our engineering to take advantage of this opportunity. Because these are modifier processes there are a lot more meetings up front and more approvals required. It’s not as standard an endeavor as warehousing projects.”
Conveyor Meets Robot
Besides the need for speedy redesign and reconfiguration, there’s also a need for more operational speed where conveyors in manufacturing are concerned. That is making the marriage of conveyor systems with robotic systems a match made in the USA.
“The needs of U.S. consumers are shifting,” says Earl Wohlrab, manager of robotic integration for Intelligrated (www.intelligrated.com), a material handling system integrator. “Take the adult diaper industry. This is a sector we’ve been in but not at the speeds or quantities we’ve seen. That means high speed machinery being applied where it typically hasn’t been used before. Our medium to low speed palletizers are being replaced with high speed equipment.”
As production speeds of manufacturers ramp up, so does the variety of packaging these systems handle. That is giving robots more work in more sectors of manufacturing. That doesn’t mean labor gets booted off the island as more automated manufacturing comes back ashore.
“You can still have slapper lines where you have a scurry of activity to get loads out of a trailer and put them into the system,” Wohlrab says. “Now we’ll interface with the robotics and keep presenting one load after another to the robot. People can be involved in less mundane and more high-value tasks, maybe in the picking modules.”
Conveyors will have new jobs too. A trunk line of chain driven live roller conveyors will now bring full loads out of manufacturing and interface with plug and play autonomous vehicles that will take assemblies to another part of the plant or to a staging area for shipping.
“With that we’ll have to get better at incorporating sensor technology with our ability to program the robots so they can multi-task,” Wohlrab says.
Conveyor Meets People
People will also have to work smarter amidst all this smart technology.
According to a study of more than 300 manufacturers by Manufacturing Enterprise Solutions Association (MESA) International (www.mesa.org) and industry analyst firm Cambashi (www.cambashi.com), an Industry Council of representatives from manufacturers and producers, the extent to which a company provides operational metrics to its workers separates “Business Movers” from “Others.”
The metrics process rests on collecting data from processes being measured, and a far greater portion of Business Movers than Others collects data automatically to assess efficiency and quality.
According to this study, when staff members see performance within their shift, they have a much better ability to act in ways that improve performance. Whether the data shows a trend toward a problem that can be corrected, the impact of a new approach, or a problem caused by conditions on equipment or issues with a specific batch of materials, employees can be proactive and create better outcomes when they know what is happening during their workday.
This is especially critical in plants that process many types of products on the same conveyor lines. Production change-ups also call for speed changes and new staging requirements for raw materials. These are incorporated into a set of repeatable recipes used for programming the conveyor systems.
“Companies are getting into smaller runs of new products and if they’re not identical to what they’re already making operators benefit from production dashboards to give them a window into what’s going on and an additional tool to help them with repeatable setup and organization of product runs,” explains Ted Bobkowski, head of Innovative Manufacturing Solutions (www.linkedin.com/in/tbobkowski), a Colorado Springs-based process optimization firm.
Because the skilled talent pool available to manufacturers isn’t as deep as it used to be, plants need to assign people more effectively where they’re needed, and production dashboards are an important tool for this purpose as well. They give operators better visibility of an operation, with the help of manufacturing execution system (MES) software.
“Understanding metrics enhances operators’, supervisors’ and managers’ skills,” the MESA study concludes. “Structured thinking and seeing business impact lead to better decision-making.”
Being Productive Means Being Safe
There’s a tremendous effect on operational safety as well. The researchers asked the Business Movers who equipped their production areas with dashboards how much they improved on health and safety incidents on average over the last couple years, and the top level of improvement was over 10% per year.
“The people in that Business Mover group that had improved their financials significantly were more than twice as likely to have improved their reportable health and safety incidents by 10% or more,” says Julie Fraser, principal industry analyst with Cambashi. “They tend to use information more effectively and consistently, where it matters. Their employees can take action on a line if they’re delivered useful information on what they’re doing. Reportable health and safety is a pretty straightforward metric. It has an impact on the cost of manufacturing operations overall—and therefore the profitability of the company.”
This finding agrees with one that MH&L gleaned from its recent conveyor purchaser survey (left) which asked buyers to identify the most important factors in their conveyor purchase. Safety and product quality were the top responses, marked as “extremely important” by 62% and 52% of the respondents, respectively. And based on the types of investments planned for 2012, most saying “service existing equipment” and “conveyor controls,” it is evident that manufacturing plants where conveyors play a major role in material handling are focusing on ways to increase system safety while improving their process quality.