Fig. 1

Closing the Skills Gap with In-House Robotics Expertise

March 19, 2018
Cobots ease overworked employees’ strain.

Skilled manufacturing workers are becoming more difficult to find over time. In one of Bucharest, Romania’s main plants, Assa Abloy (AA) Romania, the skills gap is widening every year. The factory’s management invested in robotics to automate simple tasks and fill value-added positions with their actual workers. This generated in-house robotics expertise that set an example for the whole AA group.

A walk into AA Romania’s factory may seem endless. About 500 people work here, assembling locks that are sent to its factories worldwide, where they’re transformed into finished products. Tons of different processes are performed, most of them manually by employees who have been working there for decades.

Through the alleys, young faces are a rare sight. “The unemployment rate in Bucharest is very low,” says Adrian Iosif, a mechanical design engineer at the company. “Manufacturing work is not a desired place for most of the people. It’s very hard for us to find workers.”

In the fall of 2015, the time to break the status quo had come. AA plants across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa were asked by the company’s global management to develop robotics projects that would improve productivity in their factories. Due to its lack of personnel, the Bucharest factory rapidly emerged as a leader in robotics for the AA group.

The facility started by automating the most simple and repetitive processes. “We wanted to automate the welded assembly between a front plate and a case,” explains Iosif. “There used to be an operator who put both parts together manually. We had in mind to build a flexible cell that could handle lots of parts at lots of stations.”

Cobots are able to load and unload parts to and from machines. In some factories there isn’t enough space to have robots that require safety enclosures.

 A Collaborative Solution for High-/Low-Volume Production

Collaborative robots rapidly emerged as a top solution. Iosif reached out to Razvan Isac, from local cobot distributor Robotsnet, to give this technology a try. “We were in discussion with AA for some small application project in the beginning,” says Isac. “We decided to lend them a Universal Robots model for one month. Since then we had very positive feedback from their side.”

“We also needed flexible end-effectors to suit our high-mix, low-volume production,” says losif. “We found an electrical gripper, made by Canadian company Robotiq, which adapts to parts of many different sizes and shapes. We also bought their wrist camera to locate parts. Anytime there is a new lock to assemble, I teach this new part to the camera. I can teach as many parts as I want. Then I choose which part I need, and that’s it—I changed the production.”

Locate, Pick, and Place Two Parts in 20 Seconds

Iosif wanted to automate the setup of a welding assembly that used to be done by a human operator. This included locating the front plate, placing it in the welding machine, picking the case, and placing it correctly over the plate on the fixture. Finally, the operator would press the button for welding. Beating this time with a robot wouldn’t be easy.

At first the robot couldn’t obtain faster cycle time than workers. Since it was so easy to program, however, Iosif and his team were eventually able to reach a 20-second cycle time. This would represent a 20% productivity gain while freeing human hands from a highly repetitive task.

This new process still requires a human presence (for now), but makes life a lot easier for operator Moise Nicolae. “At the beginning, I had some technical challenges with the robot,” Nicolae recalls. “But after a bit of time it became really easy, and it’s very simple to work with it. It’s a big difference for me working with a robot because my task is much easier.”

In-house Robotics Expertise

While an operator is still required at AA Romania’s first collaborative cell, tedious, repetitive tasks can be minimized or eliminated so workers are able to focus on more complex duties. Plus, each operator will eventually be in charge of two collaborative cells. This step into automation is the first of many for Iosif. He learned a bit about robots in his previous job and started working with collaborative robots on this project: “I didn’t have programming skills, but I found it very easy—with logic knowledge—to program the robot, the gripper, and the camera.

“It is tough and expensive to find integrators in Romania. They have a different solution for every part,” losif continues. “In our team, we have a manager and four engineers. We also have three students with us part-time and two technicians who help us build what we plan. The main role of the automation revolution happening here at the Romanian plant is to set an example for our colleagues in other plants in Europe.

 “We have lots of opportunities in this factory, because it’s a big plant and most of the work is done manually,” he concludes. “The robots help us move our colleagues to the empty places that we have here in the factory.”

 For Isac, the AA case is a regular story in Romania, where manufacturing recruitment is a tough endeavor in which robots are used as backups: “This solution is an alternative. Factories don’t buy a robot to replace people—they buy it because they cannot find people. I’ve never seen someone lose his job to a robot in Romania.”

With man and machine working together more and more each day, adding to an economy that is more open to other markets than ever before, Romania now seems on the right track to fulfill its manufacturing potential.

David Maltais is a public relations specialist at Robotiq. He travels the world looking for stories of manufacturers who overcame production challenges with robotics.

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