The benefits of process automation have been well reviewed in the literature over the last two decades, highlighting cost savings, efficiency, competitiveness, productivity and easier management of defects. Some articles even mention improved working conditions since serial, repetitive work is substantially eliminated and replaced by monitoring and process improvement activities. Surprisingly, most ‘field’ surveys reveal that staff reduction is almost never an issue for advanced industries since they seek staff with modern production skills.
The production line of the ABB plant in Frosinone
Collaborative robots: from work allocation to work sharing
Today Industry 4.0 means modern electronics and IT technologies that can enable collaborative robots to work closely with humans, without physical barriers after a risk assessment. Many believe such robotic support could be used to reinforce the operating autonomy of production cells, with increased through-put speeds and improved product quality, as well as simplified control.
The relationship between humans and machines, which began with separation and continues with co-existence, is rapidly evolving from the division of work to the sharing of processes. Among the numerous benefits of Industry 4.0 is the use of electronics at the individual component level, enabling tracking and development of added-value customer services. A textbook example of advanced digitalization of processes is seen at the ABB plant of Frosinone in Italy, which employs 6K, has 2.4 billion Euro turnover and export share of 67%.
Frosinone ABB plant
The Frosinone plant, which opened in 1969, is a center of excellence for the production of low-voltage molded case circuit breakers and air circuit breakers. Its work cycle includes both the development of basic components and the assembly of finished products.
Products to be shipped to 100 countries in 4 days
“With a footprint of 150,000 m2, almost 50K of which is occupied by operating units, the Frosinone plant is globally the most important site of ABB’s Protection and Connection Business Unit,” said Andrea Menti, Hub manager ABB Italy. “The site has 800 employees and produces 2.6 million circuit breakers per year. Lean manufacturing has always been its specialty. Pieces are shipped from Frosinone, about one hundred km south of Rome, to over 100 countries in less than four days. Flexibility, lean production processes, capacity to efficiently and rapidly meet market demands, and process innovation are some of the most significant characteristics of this site.”
We have been using robots for over two decades here
“We have 15 completely automated lines in Frosinone,” said Giorgio Parente, production manager, ABB Frosinone. “We use over 40 ABB robots, half of which perform welding and assembly operations, while the other half cover a wide range of operations from quality control to testing, packaging, picking and placing.”
It started with two robots on the production line in 1993 to support brazing operations. An IRB 140 robot (6 axes, small and compact, characterized by excellent acceleration, as well as by a high load capacity of 6 kg, and reach of 810 mm) was added to the assembly line seven years later. Similar machines were added in 2006 to manage brazing, packaging and assembly operations, and four more robots were introduced in 2010 for welding. But it was at the end of 2012 that the automation rush got into full swing.
YuMi®, a collaborative robot
The collaborative robot YuMi®
“Our automation strategy has three goals,” said Menti, “to promote productivity on lines with large series, considerable volumes and reduced times. We handle the biggest and heaviest objects with more safety and invest in robots capable of performing activities with a high added value to ensure process repetition with accuracy. Just think of YuMi®, introduced to the market in April 2015, at Hannover Messe, a sector trade fair. Two arms, cameras, sensitive hands: it is a vision of the future that is changing our way of thinking automation in assembly.
“It is a collaborative robot that interacts with humans on the production line. One possible application is quality control. It checks that products have been manufactured according to the customer's specifications. Designed for an era where humans and robots work side by side, the robot meets strict safety requirements. As for the investment in the robot, it is repaid in one year.”
“The robot integrates speed, agility and motion control in a revolutionary way and ensures the safety of human colleagues in the production lines and cells in the factory,” said Parente. “There are algorithms that work in real time to avoid collisions. If the robot meets an unexpected object while it is working, it pauses within a few thousandths of second and the movement can be easily restarted by pressing the ‘Play’ button on a remote control.
“Each arm bends on seven axes to imitate human movements with confined spaces. Indeed, YuMi® has been specifically designed to meet flexible and agile production requirements in the consumer electronics sector. It is very accurate and quick, capable of returning exactly to the same position, time and again with the precision of 0.02 mm. It can move up to 1,500 mm per second.
From big data analytics to immediate problem solving
Industry 4.0 technologies at the Frosinone site are not all robotic.
“We perform big data analyses,” explains Menti. “Tracking abnormalities is critically important in production processes so we collect and examine data systematically. We are investing heavily in the infrastructure to collect and use information for continuous process improvement. Our problem-solving processes are now autonomously triggered by the system.”
“Since all production lines are connected,” added Parente. “With Industry 4.0 and the IoT (Internet of Things) the product chain can be characterized by continuous measurement at every step in the cycle, which means our reaction times are short with specialized technicians on hand to resolve problems immediately.”
“Since smart devices are connected in real time,” added Menti, “customers can trace the ordered products online. Now we are investing so that components upstream can be identify in the value chain. We want to enhance product traceability on our production lines, with products travelling on pallets that can record and carry vital information.”
Doubled production and increased staff with automation
According to the interviewees production has more than doubled since the first robots was installed.
According to Menti, the company ‘keeps exploring new horizons to improve processes, increase productivity and reduce working times. But there is also another important aspect worth mentioning, innovation and digitalization have improved and increased the skills of the workforce. Young engineers are capable of using effective technologies that have not yet been consolidated, thus enriching their unit with technical skills. In summary, investing in technology means promoting skills.”
Many have feared massive job losses with the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Indeed, in the last World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report, a negative balance of 5.1 million resources in 2020 was predicted among the 15 most industrialized countries of the world. That’s a total of 1.9 billion workers.
According to the Report, Italy seems to be the only country with a zero balance: 200K jobs lost, 200K jobs created. But how are things going in Frosinone?
“Actually,” said Menti, “since the beginning of the new millennium, when we moved towards automation, we have seen an increase not only in production volumes, but also in the number of staff. This is due to the fact that competitiveness is essential for growth. For the last four years in particular, the balance has been positive, with over one hundred new employees.”