Building In-House Robotics Expertise to Close the Skills Gap
Staff posted on February 23, 2018 |
In Bucharest, Romania, the skills gap is widening every year.

A walk through Assa Abloy Romania’s factory can seem endless. About 500 people work here, assembling locks that are then sent to other Assa Abloy factories worldwide, where they’re transformed into finished products. Countless different processes are performed at the factory, most of them are done manually by employees who have been working here for decades.

Looking through the factory’s alleys, young faces are a rare sight. “The unemployment rate in Bucharest is very low,” said Adrian Iosif, a mechanical design engineer at Assa Abloy Romania. “Manufacturing work is not a desired place for most people. It’s very hard for us to find workers.”

In fall 2015, Assa Abloy plants across Europe, Middle East and Africa were asked by the company’s global management to develop robotics projects that would improve productivity in their factories.

Image courtesy of Robotiq
Image courtesy of Robotiq

It was the beginning of what Assa Abloy calls the automation revolution. Due to its workforce shortage, the Bucharest factory rapidly emerged as a robotics leader for the Assa Abloy group.

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

A Plug and Play Solution for High-Mix/Low-Volume Production

To solve this problem, the factory sourced a gripper designed for plug and play functionality. “We found the Robotiq Gripper, which is adaptive to different parts. It was exactly what we needed. We also bought the Wrist Camera, which can locate parts in a wide field of view. Any time there is a new lock to assemble, you can teach a new part. You can teach as many parts as you want and choose which one you will use, and that’s it—you change the production,” explained Iosif.

Image courtesy of Robotiq
Image courtesy of Robotiq

The company also decided to try a collaborative robot installation. Iosif reached out to local distributor RobotsNET Consulting to give the UR5 robot a try. “We were in discussion with Assa Abloy for some small application project in the beginning,” explained Razvan Isac, sales manager with RobotsNET. “We decided to lend them a Universal Robots UR5 for one month to test because they had some very interesting applications that could work with it. Since then, we’ve had very positive feedback from their side.”

With all the cell design completed, the integration phase started as Iosif and his team were aiming for a cycle time that would improve productivity.

Designing Efficient Pick and Place

Image courtesy of Robotiq
Image courtesy of Robotiq

Iosif wanted to automate the setup of a welding assembly that had previously been performed by a human operator. This process 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, once those steps were completed, the operator would press the button for welding. Beating this time with a robot wouldn’t be easy. “When the first robot arrived, the reaction of the people was not very good. They said that the robot would not be able to produce at the same rate. And they were right at first,” recalled Iosif.

By trial and error, Iosif and his team were able to achieve a 20-second cycle time. This represented a 20 percent productivity gain while it also freed human hands from having to perform a highly repetitive task. Iosif describes this pick and place robotic application: “We have a table where the operator puts the cases. Using the Wrist Camera, the UR5 robot detects the case, grabs it with the Gripper, and puts it in the fixture of the machine. After that, the robot goes for the front plate, puts it on the fixture, and then the command is made for the machine to weld.”

This new process still requires a human presence for now, but it also makes life a lot easier for workers like operator Moise Nicolae. “At the beginning, I had some technical challenges with the robot. But after a bit of time, it became easier. It’s a big difference for me working with a robot because my task is much easier,” explained Nicolae.

In-House Robotics Expertise

While an operator is still required at Assa Abloy Romania’s first collaborative cell, that worker’s duty is now far less mundane. Plus, each operator will eventually oversee two collaborative cells. This step into automation is the first of many for Iosif, a mechanical engineer who learned a bit about robots in his previous job but was new to real-world robotics programming. “I didn’t have programming skills, but I found it very easy, with logic knowledge, to program the robot, the Gripper and the camera,” he explained.

Iosif’s motivation and enthusiasm is easy to sense. He shares it with the entire Assa Abloy Romania automation department—a team that now includes 10 people, only a year after its creation. “It is tough and expensive to find integrators in Romania. They have a different solution for every different part. In our team, we have a manager and four engineers like me. 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 also to set an example for our colleagues in other plants in Europe—to show what we can do with new technologies like collaborative robots,” elaborated Iosif.

Image courtesy of Robotiq
Image courtesy of Robotiq

This brings us back to the initial walk through when visiting this massive factory. All kinds of robots are visible in many areas of the factory. Some are hard at work, while others are in test mode, and still others are immobile and waiting for future deployments. “We have lots of opportunities in this factory because it’s a big plant and most of the work is done manually,” Iosif insisted. “The robots help us move our colleagues to the empty places that we have here in the factory.”

According to RobotsNET’s Razvan Isac, the Assa Abloy case is a familiar story in Romania, where manufacturing recruitment is a difficult endeavor in which robots are used as backups. “This solution is an alternative,” Isac explained. “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 each day—contributing 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.

For more stories like this, check out UR10 Collaborative Robot Resists Heat and Particle Spray Without Maintenance

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