Driving transformation with laser-guided autonomous vehicles

October 30, 2018

Nobody—and nothing is perfect. As Georgia-Pacific master technician Mike Cooper learned, sometimes even a gigantic rolling robot can benefit from a little human ingenuity. 

Take the laser-guided autonomous vehicles (LGVs) that hum across the floor of his facility in Crossett, Arkansas, where he saw a problem with how the LGVs were loading products for delivery. He received photos of gigantic pallets of paper products that would jump around at the tail end of trucks during transit, making it nearly impossible to unload properly at their destinations—even on those loads with just a few hours’ travel. Cooper knew he could do better—and he had the experience to develop a solution.

 

Crossett’s newest manufacturing line—referred to as the Diamond Plant—manufactures bath tissue and is one of several Georgia-Pacific locations around the country using laser-guided vehicles, which move with the help of synchronized motors and mirrors. As Cooper now sees it, automation is the future—his future. But when he first heard about automation coming to Crossett, he admits he was terrified.

“It was very intimidating at first. I’m not going to lie about it,” said Cooper, who, before his current role as a master technician, served as a winder operator.

But with some training and reading, the transition was much smoother than he anticipated. In fact, he found a new calling in managing an entire fleet of automated vehicles, interacting with vendors for the Diamond Plant and managing LGV maintenance, optimization, and safety—a career totally new for the mill.

While as many as 73 million jobs in the United States could be automated by 2030, Cooper’s experience shows not only how people can adapt and thrive, but how workers are still essential to constantly improving operations. When he started his career nearly 40 years ago, Cooper’s job was to take packages of toilet paper off the line and pack them into boxes. Now, he holds a patent for his work to improve the LGV programming to perform the same function, and it is an LGV—not Cooper—that loads pallets of product to the back of each truck. Now, Cooper gets to put his expertise to work at another level, using his working knowledge to improve operations in Crossett and beyond.

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While the LGVs load pallets of product to the back of each truck, their sensors aren’t perfect. Most trailers can hold 30 stacks of product, but LGVs cannot move close to the wall on the last stack. Since they can’t fully pack the vehicle, pallets often move and fall in transit to customers or distribution centers. Of all the issues that come with shipping goods across the country, load shifts are by far the most prevalent.

“I’m  very competitive, and I like a challenge. Each of those shifted loads was a failure for me. It was just a challenge, and I just kept watching it and then I just figured out; this is how we could resolve this issue,” said Cooper, who invented a method to adjust the sensor by adding a rod that he fashioned in his garage.

He and Georgia-Pacific obtained a patent for the trailer-loading device, and other Georgia-Pacific facilities are now using the same innovation. Today, shifted loads are much less frequent—just 11 in the last year and a half—since Mike’s invention was implemented.

Like most inventions, Cooper’s LGV modification took some trial and error but through it all, he had a supportive manager and team willing to experiment with better solutions. Cooper credits the culture at the plant, and at Koch companies, to fostering innovative ideas. Encouragement came from employees like Stan Haynie, a manufacturing engineer who allowed Cooper to experiment, even after his initial trials failed.

“Kudos to him for letting me experiment. He had enough confidence that I was on the right track,” Cooper said.

Now, each shipment can fit more product, and Cooper is still finding ways to optimize the machines and processes—his latest project involves developing a towing device to safely move disabled LGVs. And he sees even greater benefit in making his workplace safer through automation and ingenuity.

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“Employees like Mike who apply their knowledge and skills to improve operations are truly transforming our businesses,” said Jeff Koeppel, senior vice president of operations at Georgia-Pacific. “We are constantly discovering and refining new ways to improve our processes while responsibly managing our resources.”

At ease with his automated coworkers, Cooper recalls a visiting vendor who was concerned about the potential loss of human jobs with the implementation of the LGVs.

“I used to do this for a living, and I couldn’t see doing it any other way,” Cooper told the visitor, who, after spending two hours in his facility, said he felt more at ease around the automated vehicles than he would have with human operators.

Cooper and his colleagues have witnessed the transformation firsthand. Cooper credits that transformation to the wealth and depth of his coworkers’ ideas to improve and innovate.

“Everybody’s always open to any idea. We’ll listen to you. There are no dumb ideas. Techs on my finished goods department are constantly bringing up, ‘Hey what about this?’ And it’s valuable,” Cooper said. “We always have something to work on because there are so many talented people coming forward with ideas. And 10 years from now, the Diamond Plant will probably be a place that everybody wants to come and look and just see. This is automation; this is what it looks like.”