Case Study: Collaborative Robots in Technical Ceramic Parts Production
Rethink Robotics' Baxter robot is bringing new flexibility to the Du-Co Ceramics manufacturing floor.
"Flexibility” is not a word that has been commonly associated with automation in manufacturing facilities. For custom parts manufacturers, that has typically meant that traditional automation options were off-limits for the majority of their processes.
They are not alone. In fact, a recent study by Boston Consulting Group suggests that 90% of manufacturing tasks in today’s plants are not good candidates for traditional automation solutions, primarily because they lack the fast changeover potential needed to support the flexibility of most high-mix manufacturing environments. With the advent of smart, collaborative robotics like Rethink Robotics’ Baxter, that percentage is beginning to shrink significantly.
Du-Co Ceramics, a manufacturer of technical ceramics parts, has long faced the challenge of automating its manufacturing processes, where parts, demand and tasks can change every day. Traditional automation has worked well for jobs requiring speed, precision and high-volume production, but that represents just a fraction of the work at Du-Co.
Du-Co produces hundreds of unique parts every day on high- and low-volume lines, requiring a tremendous amount of flexibility. However, like many manufacturers, the company is working to balance that flexibility with precision and cost considerations. Although Du-Co employs traditional automation on one or two high-volume production lines, the company identified three specific limitations that prevented their use for further implementations:
• Inability to shift from one task to another without significant reprogramming or implementation effort
• Ineffectiveness in semi-structured environments
• Inability to adjust for short-run productions in an economically feasible way
“Introducing automation into our facility is not simple,” said Josh Rupp, process engineer at Du-Co Ceramics. “We’re producing hundreds of different parts through many different processes. Reprogramming and resetting automation to adjust to these changes takes time that we don’t have.”
To improve its manufacturing processes, be more competitive and better position the company for sustained growth, Du-Co needed a solution that provided greater responsiveness to changes in demand while also delivering enhanced quality and consistency. The goal was to optimize productivity by leveraging the strength of its existing employees and technology.
The company purchased Baxter, a smart, collaborative robot that handles common variations with ease and works like humans do, to work alongside Du-Co’s staff on the factory floor. Baxter is an enabling technology that is easily taught to do any task through demonstration and can seamlessly move between products, lines and applications. With Baxter, Du-Co can now design solutions and production lines, and optimize its workforce by allowing its human staff to do the work that best suits humans, and allowing the Baxter robot to handle much of the repetitive task work.
“Our end goal is to enable flexible automation that integrates seamlessly with our staff,” said Rupp. “We’ll have our production team be able to train Baxter to do a variety of tasks in real-time.”
Baxter works alongside the Du-Co production team on the factory floor, placing ceramic parts into a sagger, and readying the parts for firing in the kiln. Grabbing and moving parts four at a time, Baxter is improving speed and efficiency in this pick-and-place process. The parts, which vary from day to day, are funneled down the production line where Baxter picks and places them in groups of 20.
“This is a process that has proven mundane for our employees, and one that we couldn’t practically automate with any other methods,” said Rupp. “It’s a simple pick-and-place task, but it’s improved our efficiency significantly.”
Du-Co has two ceramic manufacturing facilities capable of producing millions of parts per day. Pressed ceramics can be manufactured up to 5 in. in diameter, and extruded ceramics can be manufactured up to 3 in. in diameter. Custom production of precision ceramic products includes creating parts through a variety of processes. Ceramic products with regular and linear shapes are produced using the extrusion process, while irregularly shaped or multi-level ceramic parts are produced with automatic pressing equipment. Many features that cannot be incorporated into the die design are machined into ceramic parts after extrusion or pressing. Du-Co can drill, tap, slot, thread, machine and groove to exact tolerances prior to firing. These processes produce unique and precise technical parts that need to be oriented and fired in the kiln in different ways.
In deploying Baxter, Du-Co expects to run more presses with less labor, with a projected labor reduction of 75% on mid-volume parts. Currently, the machine-to-operator ratio is at 1:1—and is expected to rise to 4:1—with employees expected to move to other jobs in the facility. “Our employees are thrilled with the addition of Baxter as well,” said Rupp. “Baxter is freeing them up to take on more complex and engaging tasks and jobs at our plants, leaving Baxter to handle the repetitive jobs.”
Baxter allows Du-Co to handle the rapid changeover needed in its facility because the robot is able to work with a variety of parts and configurations while requiring minimal setup and implementation time between jobs. That combination makes Baxter the ideal fit for the high-mix environments that are common in Du-Co’s facility.
Moving forward, the company is primed to introduce more collaborative robots into the mix. In the short term, Baxter will continue to be used in the same sagger-filling task for a variety of different parts. The company is also looking at Baxter for some of its machine-feeding operations, with the robot feeding parts into a variety of fixtures: groovers, drill presses and more.
“We’re on the frontier of collaborative robotics in the ceramics industry,” said Rupp. “There’s a time in the not-too-distant future where every custom parts producer will be deploying this type of technology.”
In fact, that same study from the Boston Consulting Group projects that investment in industrial robots will accelerate markedly over the next decade, from annual growth that now averages 2-3% to around 10%. As a result, the total cost of manufacturing labor in 2025 could be 16% lower, on average, in the world’s 25 largest goods-exporting nations than they would be otherwise. Depending on the industry and country, output per worker could rise by an estimated 10-30% over and above productivity gains that typically come from other measures.
For Du-Co, it’s a simpler goal: to improve flexibility in a variety of tasks throughout its facility. Smart, collaborative robots are enabling this agility while giving Du-Co a competitive advantage the company can leverage for many years to come.