Cutting waste and streamlining manufacturing through the implementation of robotics and automation equipment has helped increase the company’s capacity with revenues increasing from $5 million annually to $20 million and output of 6 million units per year.
ecently I had the opportunity to visit Whirltronics located in Buffalo Minnesota, a company that for over 40 years has provided metal stamping, forming, heat treating, painting packaging and produces lawnmower blades for some of the largest commercial companies and OEMs worldwide. I met with Steven Thul, the president of Whirltronics who gave me a tour to show me how robotics and automation has been implemented in his 60,000-square foot manufacturing facility. Whirltronics uses a model of lean manufacturing which is a systematic method for waste minimization within a manufacturing system without sacrificing productivity. This type of manufacturing has greatly benefited by the advancement over the past decade in robotics and automation.
We began the tour by walking through three different manufacturing lines, each line more advanced with greater use of robotics and automation. I noticed that each of these lines had less human interaction than the prior. During the tour there were only 16 employees working at the facility which many of those employees were located in the offices and engineering labs with only a handful working on the actual manufacturing floor. Whirltronics began implementing robotics 10 years ago with their first robotic arm, made by Kawasaki Heavy Industries, still running efficiently day and night. Cutting waste and streamlining manufacturing through the implementation of robotics and automation equipment has helped increase the company’s capacity with revenues increasing from $5 million annually to $20 million and output of 6 million units per year. As revenues increase the company has made strategic purchases of additional automation components, sensors, controllers and robots which cost around a million dollars each.
The most recent production line that has been implemented by the company was the epidemy of modern manufacturing. The line used Fanuc robotic arms and advanced sensors for imaging that were able to observe each product coming through the line and send the data back to an advanced computer-based control system that could instantaneously filter out any products with imperfections as well as chronicle each unit that has passed through production on to the end client which can permanently be tracked back to the specific production batch that it came from. The entire footprint of this specific line of assembly was no more than 350-square feet with an output of more than one million units per year. Mr. Thul was more than aware of how many additional lines could be added to the 60,000-square foot facility and was excited for the potential to build that out over the coming years.
Some may wonder why not outfit every available square foot of the facility with this advanced automation equipment and robots? The answer is of course money. Although the technology is more available than ever before the systems are very expensive so it is unrealistic to take a kid in a candy store approach to purchasing the equipment. Mr. Thul explained to me that as revenues increase they will continue implementing more and more robotics systems. I realized that as exponential of the adoption of industrial robotics and automation has been it is a long-term process for companies to periodically implement and not financially feasible to take place overnight. That gives light to the question of what happens to robotics and automation as an investment once all of the companies in the world have automated. Full global adoption is not realistically foreseeable in the next 5 years and even a bit optimistic over the next decade which reaffirms my thesis to investment in robotics and automation. In the end it was an enlightening visit to Whirltronics and solidifies my argument that the world is changing by way of robotics and automation which adoption has spread even to the tiny town of Buffalo Minnesota.