An intelligent (and job-saving) approach to automation

Investing in appropriate technology for its automotive customers gave one Midwest molder a cycle-time and cost-cutting edge.

Employing robots to automate repetitive machine-tending tasks is nothing new to manufacturing, nor is the notion that the main reason for doing it is to reduce labor costs. But for contract manufacturer and molder Nyloncraft Inc. (Mishawaka, IN), automating enabled the company to add labor in key areas where it was needed to support growth, without having to hire new employees. This strategy was part of the company's recent push to reduce labor costs, says Nyloncraft automation engineer Carl Smith.

Nyloncraft automation pistons
A Motoman UP50 high-speed material handling robot palletizes injection molded air-cushion-ride pistons in one of three production cells automated by Tier One automotive supplier Nyloncraft.
Nyloncraft automation palletizing
A custom-designed aluminum rack in each of the three piston-molding and palletizing cells solved the cardboard-storage challenge. Each rack holds four pieces of folded cardboard, which have to be placed in a specific orientation to allow the robot to pick them up using a suction-cup EOAT and then place each piece onto the pallet.
Nyloncraft automation large cell
In one of two cells making large end-gate covers and spoilers for full-size pickup trucks, the entire cycle is completed in 1 minute, partly attributed to an automated gate-cutting operation.

"Adding robots to our injection molding cells has been a focus for the last five years, and has significantly reduced our costs and improved flexibility in the shop," says Smith. "We've been able to bring in more work due to the efficiency gains from the robots, and we've reassigned machine operators to other critical tasks, such as assembly."

When Smith joined the company in 2004, he had spent the previous four years helping another molder apply automation to its shop. Since then, Nyloncraft has integrated several material handling, machine-tending robots onto its shop floor. The automation investment was part of a $10 million expansion of the company's thermoplastic molding operations, originally planned in January 2004. The firm is a Tier One, ISO/TS 16949- and ISO 14001-certified supplier to the automotive industry, with injection molding machines to 3000 tons, including dual-shot presses from 1500-3000 tons, in its 165,000-ft 2 plant.

A leadoff home run

Smith hit the ground at a sprint after joining Nyloncraft, immediately canceling a robot order that had been placed prior to his arrival, and specifying a different robot better suited to the task required.

"With this initial automation project targeted back in 2004, I knew it had to work perfectly and get up to speed quickly and painlessly," Smith recalls. "Otherwise, management and the workers in the shop might have lost confidence in the ability of robots to work in this environment. I've learned that when trying to introduce automation onto the factory floor, the first try has to be successful to get buy-in for future automation projects."

That first try for Smith involved automating three injection molding workcells by placing robots in the center of each cell to remove parts from the machines, facilitate value-added operations such as drilling and component insertion, and then palletize the parts. The three cells incorporate 700-ton

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