The face of the American workplace is transforming. In this new age of automation, in a world of autonomous automobiles and artificial intelligence, manufacturers have had to find ways to harness new technology to meet the future demands of consumers in the marketplace.
For two separate Koch companies, the integration of robotics across production lines has helped meet these growing needs while providing new efficiencies and solutions to old processes in the workplace. And in doing so, it’s given employees the tools and opportunities needed to do what they do best, even better.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, in a sprawling manufacturing center that sits on the edge of town, there’s an unlikely duo taking full advantage of this new technology.
A perfect pair, welders Sean Wynn and Dutch work harmoniously together, almost as one, piecing together components and parts that make John Zink Hamworthy Combustion’s (JZHC) full range of emissions control equipment possible.
They never argue. Only Wynn takes the occasional break. And they’re more efficient working together than they are alone. But at the end of a long shift, they can’t grab a bite to eat or even just shoot the breeze.
Because, while Wynn is a human being, Dutch is all machine – more specifically, a Panasonic TL-2000 welding robot the company purchased from Valk Welding in The Netherlands (which is where the name Dutch comes from). And when Dutch first showed up at JZHC, there was an air of concern that spread across the facility.
“At first, everybody was terrified,” said Wynn, a welding robotic programmer and operator. “But they quickly realized that Dutch didn’t come to take their job – this robot has simply improved the way we weld. It’s so much more consistent … we can run everything so much faster now.”
In fact, one of the motivating factors that led JZHC to integrate robotics into its assembly line – in addition to the need to stay competitive in an evolving marketplace – was a shortage of qualified welders to fill open jobs in the Tulsa area. Dutch hasn’t displaced workers, but rather helped fill a void.
“The manual welder will never be eliminated,” said Wynn. “There’s still a lot of manpower involved. For one, the robot is never going to fit up its own product. If it turns welders from anything, it’s going to turn them into welder-fitters.”
As a trained operator-programmer, Wynn is always looking for new ways to utilize Dutch. One program that Wynn wrote for the robot turned a manual welding task that typically takes an hour and a half into a six-minute job. Speed and the resulting time savings have been two of the biggest benefits the facility has gained.
Additionally, the robot can weld in positions that would be an ergonomic nightmare for a human. The system also allows for more consistent welds, and more consistent products for JZHC’s customers, by using touch sensing and arc seam tracking technologies.
Still, Wynn and Gary Goodnight, global manufacturing director with JZHC, are quick to emphasize that Dutch is a tool for the welding team, not a replacement for human labor. Because, while Wynn can still do his job without Dutch, Dutch can’t do the same.
“The robot may be able to do the work of five or six people,” said Goodnight, “but that doesn’t mean five or six people go away. It means that five or six people are working on other essential tasks. This increases our capacity and reduces our turnaround time.”
Now, a year later, the welding team is still finding new, more efficient ways of using Dutch to do things that just weren’t possible before. There’s active learning happening every day on how to better utilize the equipment, to the benefit of operators, the company, and most importantly, JZHC’s customers.
At Georgia-Pacific’s wood products plant in Corrigan, Texas, automation is also making an impact in the workplace.
What surprises most visitors who walk through the facility is the manual nature of the plywood manufacturing process. It’s pulled manually when it’s manufactured, stacked by hand, unstacked manually to dry and restacked off the dryer before even making it to the glue (assembly) line.
"Our folks are great and they do an amazing job, but it’s hard, hot work that can get tedious,” said Hudson Pope, vice president of plywood and lumber operations. “These are individuals who have talents that we are not fully using, so we have begun automating some of these processes so we can redirect our people to higher value tasks.”
Over the last five years, the plywood division has made an effort to do just that. Through automation and innovation, Pope and his team have a plan to phase out 120 turnover-prone roles that can be automated, with a more ambitious goal of transitioning hundreds of additional repetitive tasks into higher skilled, more fulfilling positions.
To handle the workload, the facility welcomed a new innovation to its plywood line: a robotic system installed on the poly patch line in Corrigan that uses an advanced visioning system to identify and rout out knots and cracks, then patch the holes with hot glue – a synthetic patch material. And it’s fully automated.
Before the robot, the routing and patching process was all handled by hand, with four people working across two lines over four shifts, 24/7. With these robotics in place, the facility has been able to remove one line and run the other just five days per week for one shift.
And there’s a secondary benefit to this automation: safety.
“There’s inherent risk that occurs with any repetitive task,” Pope said. “People can be lulled into a false sense of security, so there’s a lot of value in minimizing the number of people in that environment.”
While the poly patch robotic system has been a big success in Corrigan – GP’s highest-volume specialty plant – due to cost constraints, it’s not a viable option for other locations in its current state. But the company is working on a simpler version that can be utilized by other facilities in the future.
And constant experimentation has been key in the plywood division, because not every endeavor has been a home run. In fact, an experiment to automate the feeding and laying process on the glue line was developed, installed at Corrigan, and scrapped after six months because it just wasn’t working out. But a second system just recently developed and installed at Georgia-Pacific’s Gurdon, Arkansas, operation has already proven to be a keeper.
“There’s a good lesson to be learned here,” said Pope. “Systems that work in other environments don’t always work at our facilities, but the important thing is that we have a culture across our organization where we want to experiment, understand the risks, and know that we’re going to win some and lose some. This time, it looks like we’re going to knock it out of the park.”
Suggested Reading: The Software Side of Robots
* World Economic Forum, “The Future of Jobs” report, 2016.