Automation is a Sound Idea to Bose

By: 
September 08, 1998



All of the captive molding at Bose is performed in self-contained workcells using standardized equipment. Servorobots and beside-the-press automation of tasks like degating, pad printing, heat staking, and boxing have improved its efficiencies and QC.
 

Annual sales for the privately held audio systems OEM Bose Corp. (Framingham, MA) are more than $750 million. Bose reinvests 100 percent of its profits into the company's growth and development. Its money was well spent at its 500,000+-sq-ft captive molding, assembly, and distribution facility in Blythewood, SC. Bose partnered with robot and automation systems supplier Wittmann to design and build fully automated injection molding workcells that are building blocks to fully integrated molding and assembly lines.
Though it continues to outsource the majority of its tools and parts, parts suitable to its automation master plan are done in-house at Blythewood. Supply will pace the growing consumer demand for its products, thanks to its savvy reinvestments. Bose has replicated its successes with Wittmann at another of its plants in San Luis, Mexico, to improve manufacturing efficiencies even further.

The huge Blythewood facility opened about two years ago, and it is, in a word, spectacular. Directly across the aisle from the assembly lines for its electronic-based products, like the popular Bose Wave radio and Bose Acoustimass speaker systems, are seven self-contained, automated molding workcells. Each of the cells uses Nissei molding machines from 200 to 500 tons. The machines run seven days a week, 24 hours a day with PC, ABS, and HIPS materials from Bayer, GE Plastics, and Huntsman. The workcells are ready and awaiting the installation of more automation to close the loop with assembly lines right across the aisle. The plant was designed with just-in-time in-line automation in mind. Everything at Bose, even layout and flow, is done from an engineering perspective.

That might have something to do with its founder, Amar G. Bose. He is a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He founded the company in 1964. His research into the field of "psychoacoustics" while doing graduate work at MIT, and the subsequent development of new audio technologies based on his research, led to the patents that led to Bose products. Bose still retains his faculty position at MIT, while moonlighting as the technical director and chairman of a $750 million company.

Bose made the decision to bring molding in-house about four years ago, according to Jim MacDonald, plastics engineer at Blythewood. "The decision was made for a couple of reasons. We knew there were certain things that we could do cheaper and more efficiently than a custom molder. We could afford to take the time to do it right, and we could afford the capital to invest to do it right. Also, there are certain plastic components that are key to our business. We needed to better control quality. We felt we would be more cautious with tools, and could run them the way they needed to be run."

Luckily, Bose had strong people with molding experience in the right positions to make the right decisions. MacDonald credits Tom Beeson, corporate vice president, and Steve Parker, corporate manager of plastics engineering, as being responsible for Bose's insourcing successes. Parker's molding background is with companies like Bic and Gillette. He'd even served some time at custom molder Nypro. MacDonald worked at Gillette and Nypro as well. The molding team at Blythewood was empowered to come up with the JIT automation scheme for the plant. The team's ideas were based on systems originally run at Bose's now defunct first plant in Westboro, MA. "We do not want to stock parts here. Ever," MacDonald states.

The basic idea is to do all the necessary secondary finishing steps required by molded parts prior to assembly in beside-the-press, unmanned workcells. The servorobots originally used in the first workcell are still running today down south, but Robert D. Crooks, automation engineer in the injection molding department, says that the Wittmann servorobot control system far exceeds the capabilities of the original robot's controller. "It's arduous building programs for the other robot. It may take days. But programs for the Wittmann can be done either offline, or right online. You can program them, debug them, and have things running in a couple hours. A manual and common sense will get you where you want to go." MacDonald continues, "I was able to write a program for the Wittmann myself, and I'm a processing guy. When I say it's user-friendly, I mean it."

Bose engineers say they can program and debug a Wittmann robot in hours to do any number of complex tasks, rather than the days it might take with another brand.
 

Ease of programming and reprogramming is essential to Bose's JIT manufacturing plans. For example, one workcell can perform three completely different jobs on demand. In addition to demolding and degating, it can box and layer one part; pad-print another part, for instance, a switch cover; or insert clear lenses into yet another part, a radio grille molded and bowed into shape in another self-contained workcell. Crooks says, "We are unlimited in what we can do in that work envelope. And the Wittmann Can-Bus control system is powerful enough to coordinate and control everything in that work envelope all by itself, so the controls for all the automation peripherals are basically free."

Tasks like pad printing, heat staking, automatic boxing, and degating are fully automated. Ultrasonic welding is semiautomated. The molding systems run around the clock with a plant scrap level below 1 percent. Cavity pressure transducers from RJG Technologies and the Nisseis are cited as being directly responsible for such repeatability.

But Bose also relies on its Matsui drying systems, Sterlco mold temperature controllers, Husky and Gammaflux hot runner systems, Teca-Print pad printers, Branson welders, and its TEC conveyors. In addition to its robots, Wittmann provided full turnkey automation systems development services for the ultrasafe and efficient unmanned workcells.

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