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October 28, 2022 Peer-to-Peer Event Summary

Conexus Indiana

Peer to Peer Learning



Published on

Dec 9, 2022

Konrady Plastics share its robot experience with other Indiana Manufacturers

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Key Takeaway: Konrady Plastics shares their robot experience at the Conexus Indiana Peer-to-Peer Learning Event.

Conexus Indiana is an Indiana-based organization solely focused on helping Indiana manufacturing. They do monumental work in supporting Indiana manufacturers.

Why is that so important? Manufacturing accounts for nearly 28% of Indiana’s total economic output. The total produced is about $102,900,000,000. (That is $102BB for those who don’t like a lot of zeroes.)

Indiana manufacturing employs roughly 541,000 workers, which amounts to over 17% of the state’s workforce. Those workers earned an average annual compensation of $78,702 in 2018. With inflationary wage pressures, that number has climbed. The economic contribution to both Indiana and the American economy is substantial.

On October 28, 2022, Conexus held an event to explore the impact of robotics on small to medium-sized Indiana manufacturing companies. Conexus does a terrific job of assisting Indiana manufacturing as they find their way forward on important issues like Factory 4.0, digitization, and technology.

The event was held at Konrady Plastics in Portage, Indiana. Conexus invited small and medium-sized manufacturers in Indiana to explore CNC automation. Konrady Plastics has been a leader in CNC automation. Not only have they successfully implemented CNC automation, but their leadership also put on a clinic to implement change in manufacturing. Konrady Plastics has a history of leading by example.

Konrady Plastics Industry 4.0 Background

Konrady Plastics sees its growth coming from leveraging technology. They specialize in the machining and distribution of sheet, rod, and tube plastics. Leah Konrady joined the family company as the CEO and optimized her perspective because she came from outside the industry. That unique position allowed her to question things that may not have been questioned. Or, she questioned things that had answers from when things were different. Manufacturing generally doesn’t change rapidly.

About three years ago, Konrady wondered if a robot wouldn’t help change the business model and solve some of the issues that plagued her company and other companies like hers. One of the issues that had previously prevented a move to CNC automation was their high mix/low volume order patterns. All of the research said that high mix/low volume order patterns were likely to continue and grow.

Despite supply chain issues, companies don’t want to tie up capital in inventory. Part of the shoring strategy is moving parts production closer to manufacturing. This allows them to optimize deliveries of small order sizes and not be held hostage by increased costs and transportation delays. Smaller order sizes with shorter production cycles are the trend that is solidifying.

Konrady partnered with Fusion OEM/RoboJob-USA to identify machine-tending solutions for manufacturing processes. The solution they chose was a cobot. Cobots or collaborative robots pick and place parts within their CNC lathes to optimize production. Humans doing that same set of tasks are often distracted by their phones or simply the boredom of waiting for the CNC machine to complete the cycle so they can remove the completed part and insert a new one.

While exploring the cobot solution, Konrady learned about the Indiana Manufacturing Readiness Grants program, which financially assists manufacturing innovation. The timing could not have been better. Konrady applied for the grant and was awarded funding to help defray the acquisition costs.

Technology Integration Companies as Partners for Innovation

Fusion OEM/RoboJob-USA has a long history of working with Chicagoland manufacturers in Chicagoland. Fusion OEM started as a machine shop and contract manufacturer. When a new business model was required, Fusion OEM added a cobot. It was so successful that they added another and another. Company founder, Craig Zoberis, explained how he applied the firm’s manufacturing experience to expand focus into technology solutions. While the cobots were successful, Zoberis continued exploring automation options to optimize the solution.

When Zoberis Belgium-based RoboJob, he was immediately struck by the synergies and similarities. RoboJob started as a machine shop, and in response to competition from low-wage countries, the leadership team sought a solution to change the business model. No one made CNC machine tending robots then, so RoboJob set about building their own. Their focus was making everything simple to adapt to the high mix/low volume order patterns.

They realized that the secret to success was in programming. Programming a simple insert and remove process required between 700 and 1100 lines of code. As the shapes and sizes changed for each job, more programming was required.

Replacing a $14/hr CNC machine operator with a $49/hr robot programmer doesn’t make economic sense. The risk element of having to replace the programmer was immense. If the predecessor didn’t document the code properly, the new programmer could spend hours trying to undo what the previous programmer had done. In the meantime, jobs that needed to be run would be sidelined while the new programmer found a way to create that work.

That is why the programming turned to a Windows-based, icon-driven, drag-and-drop style that is not really programming. The operator enters the raw and finished parts dimensions and the material and selects the recommended optimal blowout pattern, or they can choose a different one. It takes four or five minutes to enter the information, and then you can run the job.

The RoboJob approach is dramatically different from programming cobots. And that is an important distinction between robots and cobots that can easily be overlooked. But to do so would be a huge mistake.

When you change part sizes, the cobot movements and programming require modification. Depending on the cobot, you may need to “teach” the cobot new movements. New code must be written. This takes time and resources.

It also goes back to the risk factor and replacing people in today’s market.

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The Fusion OEM/RoboJob-USA partnership enables a seamless three-step process to help new and existing customers add CNC automation:

  • Investigate: With the client, Fusion OEM/RoboJob-USA determines where the client is on its automation journey and identifies the best technology solution.
  • Prepare Site Readiness: Preparing the site for installation, including infrastructure modifications and plans for shutdown, upgrade and restart, is an important next step.
  • Implementation: The final step is delivery, installation, and training.

One of the things about RoboJob-USA robots is that they are CNC brand agnostic. They work well with Haas, Mazak, Doosan, DMG Mori, Brother, and others. Equally as important, the robots work with a brand new CNC that is shipped from the factory as “robot-ready,” and it works with a CNC machine that is old enough to vote.

The difference is in the preparation. If the CNC is older, some of the programming software may need to be updated to accommodate the automatic door opener, the automated work-holding device, the mist collector, and other robot-ready requirements.

If robots and CNC automation were not a growing trend, would the CNC manufacturers be producing robot-ready models?

Konrady Industry 4.0 Implementation

Konrady pursued two cobot projects with Fusion Robotics/RoboJob-USA, each requiring different solutions but following a similar implementation process. Once the robots were delivered, Fusion OEM/RoboJob-USA deployed service engineers to install the equipment and get it up to speed. The timeline to install and operationalize took 1 business week, and by the following week, the CNC lathes were up and running with the new technology. Leah Konrady said it was “seamless” with the technology integrator’s support.

Earlier, we discussed Konrady leadership and its impact on their organization and the community. One of the things they did to make the implementation successful is bringing their employees into the process very early. Machinists who had been with Konrady for a long time saw how the technology would increase their productivity and quality.

The management team was surprised at how the younger frontline staff were eager to work with the technology. Konrady even identified “champions” who were instrumental to success. The younger staff took selfies with the robot and posted them on social media. That made it fun and interesting. It also made recruiting younger team members much easier.

What is unstated here is important. When a company invests resources in technology like this, they are in it for the long haul. People want to know that the company is going to be here for the long haul.

The key component of success is often understated. By bringing everyone in the company earlier in the process, the acceptance level was much higher. There was no fear of change. Implementation went smoother because people could share their ideas and voice their questions and concerns.

Never underestimate the value of explaining the plan and seeking feedback. They did that early and often, and most importantly, they listened to their team.

Key takeaways from the peer-to-peer discussion:

  • Invest Time Upfront on Research and Exploring Technology Grants: Use case best practices can often be found to put you on the right track. Konrady, as a plastics machining manufacturer, tapped into resources from plastics manufacturing trade associations and other sources as it was crafting its Manufacturing Readiness Grants application.
  • Communicate Forthcoming Technology Changes & Build Employee Buy-In: Early involvement of and engagement between frontline operations and engineering is key. Konrady communicated with employees to ensure they understood their motivations. Staff embraced the changes and contributed to implementation.
  • Plan How to Operate and Maintain Technology Once the Tech Integrator Departs: Ensure that company engineers and frontline staff can successfully operate new technology from “0 to 100” – meaning staff should be able to program or re-program equipment.
  • Why is this important? Konrady order patterns are often high-mix, low-volume production jobs. High-mix orders require frequent programming modifications. With the cobot, they initially underestimated the level of ongoing programming. Within months of operation, they were able to gain mastery of cobot programming. With the RoboJob-USA robot programming, the team learned how to do it in the morning, and by the afternoon, they were running jobs. The difference between cobot and RoboJob-USA programming cannot be overstated.
  • Spend Time Upfront with the Tech Integrator: Identify potential use cases, focus on “pain points,” and explore solutions options. Many processes can be automated but prioritize your most critical needs.
  • Fully Vet Prospective Integrators: Request client referrals and examples of prior success. Ask hard questions about equipment downtime, installation process, ongoing expenses, project viability, and more. As a machine shop leader, you are likely to be well-versed in buying CNC machines. You’ve done it multiple times before. Robots don’t come with the same set of questions. Educating yourself on the key questions for each aspect of the robot is important. It is also important to work with an integrator who guides and assists you so you get the right robot for your operation.
  • Frame the Opportunity in terms of Value-Adds to Gain Leadership Buy-In: When attempting to convince leadership to fund the project, quantify the prospective return on investment. Look toward value-adds such as quality improvement gained when replacing highly routine, monotonous tasks with automation. In 8 or 10-hour shifts, mistakes are inevitable. Mistakes are expensive. Repetitive and tedious tasks over a shift can increase the potential for errors. If someone tries to tend two machines at once, the risk of error increases. If the cycle time is longer and the time between unloading and loading the CNC machine increases, the risk of error also increases. The risk of suboptimal production also increases. This is where CNC automation technology can reduce those errors and their associated expense.

Get Involved

If you are an Indiana-based manufacturing company and are unaware of Conexus Indiana and its great work, you may want to explore more.

Conexus Indiana’s Peer-to-Peer Network is an invite-only forum for Indiana manufacturers and logistics companies to share knowledge and best practices about advanced technology they have utilized or are seriously considering.

Ultimately, we hope these conversations will drive greater adoption of advanced technologies by allowing a variety of stakeholders to learn about technology among engaged and informed peers. Reach out to Conexus Indiana to get involved.

If you are ready to start your journey to CNC automation, call us at 866-952-9020 and then press 1 to start the conversation.

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