As anyone within UK manufacturing is all too aware right now, finding (and keeping) skilled staff continues to be a pretty tough task.
And so much so, that here at FB Chain we've had some serious conversations about delaying our plans for growth of the business, simply because securing enough staff to be able to run more than one day shift was proving so problematic.
But while many manufacturers were opting to close down their UK production and send their work off-shore to lower-cost countries, we made the decision to keep things local, and stay competitive, by getting automated.
Adding to the FB family
For a long time we'd relied on our staff's good-will in agreeing to work overtime in order to extend our working hours - but even with the best will in the world this level of productivity just simply wasn't going to be sustainable for our people, or for the quality of their home lives.
Our solution? The introduction of four specialist robot workers in the form of Robert, Eve, Rachael and Jimmy.
Meet the team
We took possession of our very first Halter CNC robot, Robert (who is named after the robot from Forbidden Planet), back in 2015. We are also proud to say that we were the very first company in the whole of the UK to purchase one of these robots.
Our next addition was Eve, who joined us in March 2016 and whose name was inspired by a character from the Disney film WALL-E.
Our third robot Rachael is (rather aptly) named after the robot from Blade Runner. And like her cinematic counterpart, who wrongly believed she was human, our own Rachael gave us a fair few issues in getting her up and running!
Our fourth robot Jimmy is our newest recruit, having been with us since February this year. Jimmy is named after our longest serving production person, who has been with FB for more than 25 years.
At the time, our much-loved human Jimmy had been suffering from ill health and was due to retire - but we're delighted to say that he has since made a full recovery and is now back at work alongside his robotic namesake!
Small beginnings - big plans
When we first started thinking about the idea of introducing automation on the factory floor, the whole FB team got very excited. The concept of robot technology is something that can often be a bit emotive, with futuristic visions of machines making humans redundant and taking over the world!
However we saw it as a way of making working life safer, easier and more satisfying for our people. And we're pleased to report that using automation in the way that we have has provided a huge number of positives in terms of staff morale, productivity and quality.
The day that we achieved our first four hours of unmanned (lights-out) production it felt like a momentous step! And gradually, as we've came to grips with the technology and overcome each obstacle, the lights-out work has steadily increased.
After our initial successes, we set the goal of running two shifts of production - with one shift being attended by our own staff and the second eight hours of the day being completely unmanned.
Our robot loader, Jimmy, was purchased with the aim of being able to run for sixteen hours unmanned. And we have another project in motion to increase the capacity of two of our other robots to similar levels.
Making improvements in our automation now is around things like adjusting batch sizes, planning to ensure that jobs with the optimum production time go on the machines at the correct times and that changing between jobs is handled in the most efficient way.
In comparison with some of the very complicated actions that welding robots in car plants are required to do, our robots actually have a pretty easy life! We're asking them to do fairly simple tasks, such as loading parts into a chuck or vice in a machining centre.
When visitors come to the factory they often ask us why we don't make the robots work faster. The truth is though that it wouldn't make things any quicker. The robot has always completed his or her task and is back at the door ready to load the next part with at least 60 seconds to spare - and that's the case even on parts with the quickest production times.
What automation of certain tasks has enabled us to do is to standardise our processes and to refine the skill and time that it takes to change from one job to another. Basic programming of the robot loaders is simple. It takes only a few days to pick up and is all that is required for about 95% of the parts that we make. But it's when we need something a little more specialised that we call in the assistance of our automation partners.
We're now at a point where one of the biggest issues we have to solve is not with the robots themselves, but with everything around them - things like maintaining tool-life and managing swarf (metal waste) management.
Our robot loaders have also improved our consistency and efficiency. A robot will put the part in the same place, again and again which means that thankfully, we have a very low scrap rate. They're also about 15% more efficient than their human counterparts, with even the most adept and committed human operator could only keep up with the robot loader's per-hour rate for a short while.
On the rare occasions when something goes awry, it's easy to want to project some human-like behaviour on the robot. But in reality when you look at the root cause of most robot errors it's usually because of a miscommunication on the part of a human.
A question that we're often asked is whether a robot is better than the person it has replaced. Our answer to that is a resounding 'no'. None of our robots can (or will) ever replace a person. After all, it's humans who create the programs, who set up the machines and who work hard every day to help us improve our processes.
Robert, Eve, Rachael and Jimmy are a vital part of what makes FB what it is, but it is our people who will always be the beating heart of the business.