Practicing what we preach: Robots support strategy to keep manufacturing in the United States
2013-11-18 - For Baldor Electric Company (a member of the ABB Group), robots are part of a strategy to stay close to their customers and retain good employees by keeping manufacturing in the US and taking humans out of harm’s way.
In 1920, Edwin Ballman and Emil Doerr had a vision of a future world that depended on electric motors for nearly every aspect of daily life. In that world energy would be limited and efficiency would be paramount. Together, the two men built Baldor Electric Company to meet these dual needs of reliability and efficiency.
That forethought continues to pay off today as the world becomes more and more dependent on electric motors. From the smallest 1/50th horsepower motor to large 15,000 horsepower motors and beyond, Baldor delivers solutions for every need. Over the years the company has built itself into one of the most recognizable electrical equipment brands in the world and the largest motor and mechanical power transmission company in North America.
ABB industrial robot extracting parts from a die casting machine at Baldor, Fort Smith
“Mr. Ballman was an electrical engineer and Mr. Doerr was a machinist, and their intent was to build a better motor,” says Ryan Fitts, Baldor Assistant Plant Manager for the 210 Motor Facility. “By that I mean a more efficient motor—and that’s still our goal today.”
Over time the company has grown from a small workshop to over 7,000 employees in North America and recently became a member of the ABB Group. Now, rather than competing with ABB for business, the two organizations operate as one and have mutually extended their global reach. Together, ABB and Baldor provide customers with the broadest range of industrial motors, drives and mechanical power transmission available—primarily for original equipment manufacturers and distributors.
“We’re a customer focused company,” says Fitts. “We want to build the kinds of products our customers want to buy, not the kinds of products we want to sell.”
Simultaneously investing in US manufacturing and keeping humans safe
Given that the majority of Baldor’s customers are located in North America, their strategy has always been to invest in the facilities closest to their customers so they can provide faster deliveries and local customer support. Rather than choosing to manufacture their products overseas to save on costs, Baldor has intentionally improved productivity in their US factories with a combination of automation and introducing more efficient methods of manufacturing. One important extra benefit of this automation is that they have also created an extremely safe environment for their employees, as evident by the sign that hangs proudly above their factory floor proclaiming 8,000,000 man hours worked without a significant injury on the job.
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For many years now, adding robots to their operations has been a key part of the strategy to keep manufacturing close to their customers. At their home base in Fort Smith, Arkansas, Baldor started using ABB robots in 2000 as part of the Southwestern Die Casting facility—which is tasked with producing all the aluminum castings for Baldor’s motors. Foundry work like this is dirty and dangerous, which lends itself well to robotic automation. Over time Southwestern Die has grown from one robot to a full complement of nine robots, including an ABB IRB 6640, IRB 6600, IRB 4600 and IRB 4400.
“One of those nine robots is still the original robot from the first installation,” says Jed Reinhard, Manager of Engineering and Maintenance for Southwestern Die. “The rest of them have provided many years of service—between five and seven years, depending on how difficult the application is.”
“The robots have enabled us to run more and more multiple cavity dies at a high rate,” says Mike Gipson, Baldor Die Casting Production Supervisor. “They are extremely reliable and don’t take breaks. Also with the size of the multiple cavity castings that come out of our robotic cells, they can get pretty heavy and could wear out humans who handle them. The robots never fatigue or get injuries from these activities.”
While this sort of repetitive stress injury is a hazard for any individual who handles heavy parts on a regular basis, the specifics of foundry work also lend themselves to other kinds of hazards.
"The ABB Foundry Plus protection on these robots ensures they keep running even under the harsh conditions"
“We have a lot of other atmospheric conditions in this plant that make it a pretty harsh environment,” says Gipson. “There’s a lot of heat, aluminum dust and lubricants in the air. For a human that can present problems, but the ABB Foundry Plus protection on these robots ensures they keep running even under the harsh conditions. In general once we get a robot installed and programmed there’s not much we have to do to keep it running. We can get several years of life out of a robot before we start having any kinds of issues due to wear and tear.”
“In this hot and dirty environment with lubricants in the air, being able to have a robot inside the cell versus a person is a much better situation for us,” says Reinhard. “The operators can run multiple machines and don’t have to handle a lot of heavy materials. We’ve been very happy with the performance of the robots; their uptime and long service life has really been an asset for us.”
Die casting with aluminum is an inherently tricky process conducted under amazing pressures and temperatures. When the piece is cooling, it shrinks substantially and sometimes it’s just a matter of a fraction of a millimeter position change on robot movements that makes the difference between easy release and sticking when the cast is being ejected after trimming.
“With the new programming and the latest features in our robotic cells we can make changes on the fly,” says Gipson. “We don’t have to shut the cell down to dial the process in after we change dies and we can solve any small issues easily and quickly. The robots themselves are also quite easy to take care of given how interchangeable their parts are.”
Just down the road from Southwestern Die in Fort Smith, Baldor’s newest winding facility is being expanded from the ground up with robots playing a key role in the winding of copper wire within their motors. This so called “210 Facility” represents what Baldor sees as the future of motor manufacturing. From the movement of materials so that they never have to be lifted by humans to the incredible flexibility of the facility (it can produce thousands of different variants of motors on one line) the clean, white walls of the 210 Facility stand in stark contrast to the dirty environment of the foundry.
ABB industrial robot handling parts during the copper coil winding process
“One of Baldor’s strategies has always been to stay in the United States,” says Steve Morse, Engineering Manager for Baldor, “in order to do that you have to keep your costs down as much as possible. As we deliver more and more complex and customizable solutions we have to add processes to the assembly of our product and the only way we can alleviate the cost that comes along with that is through robotics and automation.”
At the 210 Facility robots come into play during the incredibly intricate and complex step of winding copper coils. The number and length of coils varies for every run and customer, so the robots allow for a high degree of flexibility in this process. In addition, the motor parts are incredibly heavy and having the robots move them from one winding station to another saves employees from fatigue and injury. This philosophy of preventing injuries runs throughout the 210 Facility in the form of ergonomically designed shuttles and well-positioned overhead lifts.
Currently the 210 Facility has two robotic winding cells with one ABB IRB 7600 robot per cell, but once it is fully expanded over the course of the next year it will have four cells, something that Fitts is looking forward to. “Right now we’re still in the build out phase,” he says. “Once we are fully up and running this facility is going to be what all Baldor factories are modeled after in the future. It’s a very efficient process and there’s no way we could do it without automation and robots. ABB’s support in this regard has been spectacular.”
“Some people might think that because ABB and Baldor are the same company now we get special treatment,” says Reinhard. “But the reality is that we were using ABB robots long before the acquisition and we are buying more today for the same reasons we always have: they are reliable and ABB provides great customer service—something we also value as a core mission at Baldor.”