In Kingston, Ontario, Canada, at the INVISTA facility that produces the air bag fibers that go into millions of automobiles around the world, automation is currently driving big benefits for the employees who formerly worked on the plant’s manual fiber packing and inspection lines.
Once a very tedious, repetitive process, the implementation of a new fiber autopack system has taken a lot of the manual processes that formerly tied up operators’ time and automated them away, freeing employees to focus on higher-value tasks, learn new skills and explore other opportunities at the plant.
But back in 2013, well before the equipment had even been installed and “autopack” was still just an ominous word floating around the facility, there were concerns that it would completely eliminate human input.
“My first thought when I heard about it was, here comes automation, there go the employee numbers,” said Mike Scott, who was working as a material operator packing air bag fiber at the time. “At first, I was a little skeptical of the technology. But then I saw the change and saw where some people’s time is actually being placed now instead of just manually packing.”
Scott was quick to come around and voluntarily joined the Kingston autopack project team when it formed in 2013 to help explore ways of integrating the autopack system into Kingston’s packing operations.
“Once I applied to the project and kind of talked to some of the people around here, I realized technology like this is going to be all throughout our plant someday,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time before everything’s automated, which hopefully leads to more people creating better quality products, and bigger yields.”
Another employee who openly welcomed the autopack system at Kingston was Eric Spilsbury, a material operator who, at the time, was new to INVISTA Kingston but had previous experience with automation through roles with other companies.
“I was pretty excited about the opportunity,” said Spilsbury. “As with most things, there were a few hiccups when we first started up, but we worked through it – we adapted relatively quickly.”
To prepare employees for the new equipment, and to help them succeed in their new roles, INVISTA sent team members to offsite training sessions where they were able to learn about coding, programming and how the robotics worked directly from the equipment vendor.
Going online in 2015, the benefits of the autopack system were immediate and undeniable. And while the implementation of the autopack system at Kingston did reduce the number of employees necessary to run the packing line, it redirected many employees into roles that created even more value.
“Those people went into more technical roles, like myself, where you’re more hands-on and you’re chasing quality and yields … the things that really improve the site and make us more competitive,” said Scott.
Added Spilsbury, “Now that we have more people freed up, we can be more proactive on problems and reoccurring issues at the plant and get ahead of that kind of stuff.”
One of the biggest benefits operators were quick to welcome when the system did come online was the reduction in physical demand. Manually unloading 20-pound bobbins of fiber – bobbin after bobbin, shift after shift – used to be a laborious process for employees. With the autopack system, much of that physical demand has gone away.
“Autopack’s taken a lot of strain off people’s bodies, and now we’re able to focus more on what the quality of the yarn really looks like,” said Scott. “We’re not worried about trying to get as much yarn packed as we can in a shift. Now the robots take care of that part, and that allows more people time to go dig into some root problems.”
In his new role as an asset availability leader, Scott’s now performing critical tasks around the plant, like checking and inspecting chimney and AC vent units, or any of the facility’s other compressed air and oil units. It’s an opportunity he credits to the implementation of the autopack system.
“The job’s fantastic,” said Scott. “I mean, every day is a chance to learn and grow and advance, and become an owner of certain areas and certain tasks. It’s great to be able to take that on and own it.”
Automation has also allowed Spilsbury to explore new opportunities across INVISTA Kingston. He was able to transition to a supervisory role once the autopack system was installed before ultimately leaving autopack for a position working in a different part of the plant overseeing polymer production.
“I’m in the polymer area control room now, which is where it all starts. We’re going to try and automate here more, so with my experience in spinning automation, I feel like I can contribute a little more up here.”
Beyond benefiting employees, the autopack system has improved the quality and consistency of the fiber INVISTA delivers its customers. And it’s helped eliminate unnecessary waste across the organization by providing better bobbin tracking and tagging throughout the facility.
Automation has also inspired technology-driven improvements to other parts of INVISTA Kingston’s processes. The facility has already started incorporating cameras at different locations around the plant to monitor equipment and is exploring the use of tablets to provide operators with access to digital assets beyond the office or control room, where they’re often needed most.
“You know, it’s been a big change,” said Scott. “And there was a lot of understanding around the fact that we weren’t going to be experts right away. But the learning has been great. These are skills I’ll have for the rest of my life.”