The second Rethink Robotics Baxter put on the line works round the clock and saves Standby Screw close to 2000 hours per year Matt LaWell

The second Rethink Robotics Baxter put on the line works round the clock and saves Standby Screw close to 2,000 hours per year.

How Robots Helped a 76-Year-Old Screw Factory Modernize Its Floor

Standby Screw produces more than 1,000 different parts and ships out millions of pieces every week. Not every job can be turned over to robots, but some can, and the company is reaping the related benefits without getting rid of workers.

BEREA, Ohio — From the road, Standby Screw appears to be just another factory in just another suburban industrial park. But step inside — learn about the global operations, delve into the sheer production numbers, watch all the robots at work — and you will see there is little ordinary about this screw factory as it nears the start of its ninth decade.

“We come from the old screw machine shop mentality,” says COO William Marcell II, who asks that you call him Bill and whose grandfather started the company in 1939. “And now we have a plant in Guangzhou, China.”

Yes, they operate two facilities, one just outside Cleveland, one clear on the other side of the world, which is a little out of the ordinary.

“We had BlackBerrys in here before most people knew what they even were,” says Drew Rabkewych, a sales manager who, like numerous other workers in the factory, is a second-generation employee. “We always keep looking forward.”

Yes, the technology is a big reason why Standby has remained flexible, nimble, able to adapt during the last couple of decades — though the struggling BlackBerry might not be the best example right now. Robots would be better.

“It would be nice to have customers come in here and see that we’re moving toward more automation, using more robotics,” says project manager Jess Horvath, who had worked for the company for 15 years, left for a stretch, then returned in 2012, walking proof of that old saying about green grass. “They know robots are precise and are able to do a lot of things.”

Precise and able to do a lot of things. Sounds like the company itself.

Automation on a Smaller Scale

Standby Screw is neither an incredibly small nor an incredibly large company. Its two plants fill about 180,000 square feet and its payroll extends to about 400 total employees domestically and abroad. It acts bigger, though.

For starters, Standby produces about 1,100 different parts that wind up in cars, household appliances, and lawn and garden products, to name just a handful of industries, and it ships out somewhere around 2 million pieces every week. “Screw machine parts is really only one department now,” Rabkewych says. “Our name doesn’t really fit what we do anymore.”

And then there are the robots.

Standby operates a pair of Rethink Robotics Baxters — dual-armed collaborative robots designed and manufactured by an American company with Massachusetts headquarters — in its Ohio plant. It operates more in its China plant, normally adding two every three or four months, because while Guangzhou is the fourth-most-populous city in China and Berea is the 94th-most-populous city in Ohio, “labor is 100 times worse over there than it is here,” Marcell says.

Marcell knew he wanted to automate part of the floor, but had no idea what robotics company to turn to, let alone whether he should opt for collaborative or caged, dual- or single-armed, or even consider any other potential variable. He stumbled across Baxter while clicking around online and envisioned a fit.

“Rethink isn’t the biggest company,” Marcell says, “and the robots aren’t the most accurate out there, but they have their niche: There are no cages, no fencing, and you can literally move it and retrain it to do something in minutes. We had it picking up things from a desk within the first three hours. It’s that user-friendly.”

Marcell ordered the two Baxters last fall, then worked with Horvath to program them and dropped them in the line in December. The first works in tandem with a Yaskawa Motoman industrial robot and packs boxes.

“Our thought was, What’s a monotonous job that no one wants to do?” Rabkewych says. “With the industrial robots, we built a cell, it feeds it into a machine, it goes down a chute and Baxter handles it from there.”

“And we make close to a million pieces there a year,” Marcell says. “We had somebody who took each part and put it into a box, so that was the first thing we put Baxter to work on.”

“That was seven months of the year, someone was dedicated to packing that part,” Horvath says.

Rabkewych calls it “a no-brainer.”

The second Baxter runs a milling machine with only occasional supervision.

“Baxter Two lets us run lights-out in the evening, because he’s actually machining parts,” Rabkewych says. “We can make enough blanks during the day to run Baxter day and night.”

“And before implementation, we had a body dedicated to that milling machine and to the machine that makes the blanks,” Horvath says.

Now, one worker is assigned to the primary milling machine, operating and setting up. “We’re definitely seeing payback,” Marcell says.

A Return on Investment, But How Much?

Measuring that return, though, is far from a perfect exercise, at least until Standby has a full year or more with the robots on the floor. If nothing else, they have allowed two workers to shift to less monotonous positions and, because they can operate round the clock, will save the company at least 4,000 hours per year.

“It’s tough to quantify now,” Horvath says, “but it’s significant.”

Significant enough that more orders are in line. Again, because of the strange labor situation in Guangzhou, the company adds a couple Baxters to its China plant, which it opened back in 2004, every quarter or so. Horvath, for one, would love to add more to the Ohio plant. “Just need six, seven, eight more,” he says. “You just have to design the precision.”

Is there a point where the majority of the floor can be automated, and more workers than not can be moved to other tasks?

“We can reposition most of the secondary equipment, but some would be difficult,” Marcell says. “There’s so much tooling, so many adjustments, so many variables, that you really have to keep an eye on it. Anything on the first line, I don’t see it. But the other side of the building? Absolutely.”

The ideal situation, Horvath says, is to land an order for a family of parts and automate the process 24 hours every day. Because while Standby produces those 1,100 or so different parts in northeast Ohio, it only handles about 30 or 40 different parts in southeast Asia. The company could easily turn its growing number of collaborative robots on the big jobs, then ship globally.

“We just want to keep the machines running,” Marcell says, “and the people working.”

Those two statements aren’t always in step with each other these days, but they are here, in a plant that operates more than a little differently.

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