Quality, price, speed - how automation gives FB Chain the edge

Written by Peter Church on 12 Sep 2019

Although they may seem simple components, leaf chain assemblies play a crucial part in any machinery they are part of. The failure of an anchor bolt in equipment such as forklifts and telehandlers could mean expensive loss of production and potential injuries to personnel.

This means that any component used in a leaf chain assembly, must be produced to a high standard, with consistency and quality being paramount. They also need to be fit for purpose – elements such as leaf chain anchor bolts need to be designed to suit the task they will be used for and the machine they will be used in.

At the same time, they need to be produced at a price that is competitive and acceptable to the buyer. That typically means skilled staff, efficient procedures and fast CNC machines – all combining to result in high production rates.

This is quite a challenge – remember the old triangle of quality vs price vs speed? Conventional wisdom states that you can have any two.

At FB Chain you can have quality components on time and at a keen price. So, how do we achieve this?

The key to this ability is our automation, how we utilise it and how we’ve adapted our processes to optimise the benefits.

The production challenge

When it comes to making leaf chain anchor bolts and other leaf chain attachment assemblies, you need skilled operators to work out how to most efficiently machine the parts required.

Because modern CNC machines can be programmed with all the steps necessary to produce a part, after the initial set up, those skilled staff are often reduced to loading and unloading the machine – a boring, repetitive task which prevents them from working on other, skilled tasks. Those skilled staff can also be hard to find, recruit and retain, which makes increasing production a real challenge.

Add to this, the pressure to compete with global manufacturers, producing leaf chain anchors in countries with cheaper labour costs.

Benefits of automation

This is where automation makes its impact. By using a set of robots to load and unload the machines, the whole process can run unattended and skilled personnel are freed up for other tasks, giving an additional benefit of improving the quality of their job. It allows us to keep it local whilst remaining competitive.

But this is only half the story – as the robots and CNC machines can run unattended, they can work a second shift – doubling production without employing extra staff. Working in this way also means faster, overall, turnaround times.

Whilst all of this benefits the customer, possibly the biggest benefit is the flexibility it offers, with our production able to ramp up and scale down in accordance with customer demands.

Our experience with working with automation also allows us to set up and produce a new design quickly.

Other benefits include being able to precisely replicate the same part months after the original production run by calling up the programmes used.

Making automation work

As you might imagine, it’s not a case of just plugging in the robots and sitting back as they produce everything for you – the key to successfully implementing automation is the adaptation of existing methods and systems to make the best of the robots’ capabilities and limitations.

Here are just a few of the considerations:

  • Making sure the automated system has enough material to work through an entire shift.
  • Programming the equipment so it works in the most efficient way – the least number of cuts, the fewest movements.
  • Making sure the tooling will last the shift – tool failure in the middle of an unattended shift could result in a significant loss in production and potential machine damage.
  • Jobs need to be planned so that long jobs are run on the unattended shift and shorter jobs on attended shifts.
  • Running at the right speed – run too fast and the tooling may fail before the end of the shift – run too slow and you lose potential production.

These are just a few of the factors that ensure we get the most out of our automation. Many of these can only be addressed through trial and error, and more importantly, through operator skill and experience.

Tackling the issues

In addition, there are several other issues to deal with around the use of these robots and automated methods of production. An example is machine waste; having an extra, unattended shift means that there is an increased amount of waste that needs to be dealt with. Another is finishing – do you set up the machines to produce less-finished parts that can then be finished elsewhere by hand – or do you fully-finish the parts on the machine, potentially slowing down the machine and reducing its yield?

Ultimately, it’s not just about bringing in robots, it’s about how you bring them in, how you use them, and how you build them into your production process.

If you plan and implement automation without a thought about its impact on the rest of production you will simply create a bottleneck elsewhere, resulting in parts taking up valuable space and no great increase in production times. But if you can seamlessly integrate automation and adapt your surrounding processes to work with it, you can reap substantial benefits.

We can offer more flexibility, quality, consistency and a keen price, not just because we have introduced efficient robots and CNC machines, but also because we have incorporated them into our processes, fused them with our way of doing things and made them part of our family.

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Topics: Robots, Automation

Peter Church

Written by Peter Church

Peter has in-depth knowledge of leaf chain and its applications. His 25 years experience in supplying UK manufacturing companies has given him a detailed understanding of customer needs, and this has shaped the way he has taken FB chain. Peter is a member of TC100, which represents the UK on industrial chain standardisation issues.