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Cobots Address Labor Shortages for Friesens Corporation

Trent Wideman | 28 September 2022

Facing increased customer demand, space limitations and limited labor resources, Friesens Corporation knew they needed to challenge themselves to think creatively about their production efficiency. Increased demand and volume necessitated higher throughput that only more binding lines could accommodate, creating constraints on the existing floorplan and layout. Finding space meant taking a closer look at their production processes.

Located in Altona, Manitoba, Canada, Friesens Corporation is an employee-owned book manufacturer and packaging specialist. They pride themselves on having efficient and lean work practices, using state-of-the-art equipment and innovative production facilities.

 As part of a reorganization of their 350,000 square feet of facilities, they turned to Bastian Solutions to find an innovative approach to maximizing the use of their space without relocation and maintain the fast-turnaround that customers had come to expect.

A Unique Challenge for Automation

Friesens’ produces millions of books a year with about 5,000 different SKUs (or titles) of which use different carton sizes. With about 600 employees and a limited pool to draw from for future hires, Friesens didn’t need to trim headcount but rather needed to overcome staffing vacancies. Previous palletizing operations saw high turnover and low job satisfaction.

Friesens needed a better way to use their labor force and mitigate a potentially expensive relocation to a larger facility.

The majority of the book manufacturing industry is still largely manual due to the unique characteristics of the products. They vary in weight, uniformity and thickness. Those qualities usually don’t work well with automation. Friesens, more so, faces this challenge because they manage a wide array of products – small to large book volumes. Instead of waiting for press and binding manufacturers to develop the right technology, Friesens actively pursued an automation solution and an integrator that could support their need for innovation and creativity.

Leveraging Cobots

Cobots offered a strong and quick return on investment; a savings of about 30 FTEs (full time equivalent). This, however, didn’t mean cutting positions. It meant existing employees could be retrained and leveraged for more valuable roles, leaving repetitive, tedious and ergonomically unfriendly tasks for warehouse automation solutions.

A cobot is a collaborative robot, a robot that is designed to work “collaboratively” with humans in a shared workspace. Compared to typical industrial robots, these robots have a shorter reach, handle smaller payloads, and, due to safety requirements, operate at significantly slower speeds. However, cobots introduce numerous features and benefits that can help automate a facility in a safe, cost-effective way.

In Friesens’ situation, the cobots meant they could be installed close to the production line and could feature custom end of arm tools to support their unique products. Footprint was able to be drastically reduced through the elimination of cages. Previously, Friesens’ had older palletizing robotics with a 30 foot by 30 foot protective cage footprint. The newly installed cobots required only a 4 foot by 4 foot workspace. In total, five installed cobots meant a 7.5x reduction in floor space, increasing the longevity of their existing production facility.

Key Technology

In total, the Friesens’ project featured:

  • Multi-phased collaborative robot installation
    • Started with 1 cobot, added 3 more with 1 more being installed for a total of 5
    • Cobots featuring force sensors for safety
    • Custom EoAT (end of arm tools) to precisely handle each SKU
  • Bastian Solutions’ StackOrder GO™, proprietary pallet pattern selector software

Product Considerations

The StackOrder GO pallet pattern selector software allowed us to more easily navigate the complexities of managing a wide range of case sizes and weights, as well as pallet height adjustments. With the use of the pallet pattern selector software, we were also able to reduce pallet configuration set up time from a previous 20 to 25 minutes down to a mere few minutes, increasing overall operational throughput.

Before the final installs onsite, FAT (factory acceptance testing) was conducted to validate and confirm the accuracy of StackOrder programming and the custom end of arm tools. Products were sent to Bastian Solutions’ testing facility for accurate, real product testing.

Safety

Compared to the most common industrial robots, the collaborative robots feature a shorter reach, handle smaller payloads, and operate at slower speeds making them better options for side by side work with human labor. Safety force sensors are designed to sense falls and detect collisions, triggering an automatic stop if needed.

While slower speeds may not be ideal for all scenarios, in Friesens’ case, this meant that slip-sheets could be manually added by human labor between pallet layers to protect and separate products.

The Right Automation for the Right Task

For Friesens, cobots opened up space and possibility. However, cobots may not be the right answer for all tasks in need of automation. Maybe it’s a faster robotic solution, a software solution or a new automation system. An incorrect select can result in the technology remaining unused. Our team will not let that be your experience. We review your application needs, leverage our years of experience with various technology options and industries to bring you a solution that will work for the task at hand and with your existing system.

Bastian Solutions is dedicated to helping our customers increase their productivity through proven automation, information systems and sound operating procedures. Talk to a solutions expert today about your next project.

Author: Trent Wideman

Trent is a field application engineer with the robotics group of Bastian Solutions in St. Louis, MO. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial & Manufacturing Systems Engineering from the University of Missouri – Columbia. As a field application engineer, his duties include working with clients to determine their material handling needs and developing layouts for robotic systems.

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