Confidence in your employees, your management, your partners and suppliers is essential to building a successful business. It breeds trust, which inspires loyalty. SEW Eurodrive of Lyman, S.C., is built on this belief from the top down. The company has confidence in everyone it employs, providing these individuals with both the responsibility and the flexibility to make the right decisions and drive business growth.
“When you build relationships, when you build trust and confidence in the people that you work with, that’s what is important to us,” said Chuck Chandler, assistant plant manager at SEW Eurodrive. “Building a relationship of trust really takes precedence over most other factors. In the 33 years that I’ve been with the company, there’s never been a project that we went into evaluating everything from a cost standpoint first. It’s all about obtaining the right solution and building relationships with suppliers that we can trust.”
Trust takes time to build, and it is extremely fragile. This was one critical lesson that SEW learned during its initial efforts implementing automated manufacturing systems. While early investments had helped build confidence in automated technologies and methodologies, SEW was unable to build a lasting partnership with a supplier that it could trust to execute critical automation systems.
“It’s all about obtaining the right solution and building relationships with suppliers that we can trust.”
According to SEW, the biggest issue with most machine tool suppliers is their inability to offer machines, engineering services and automation integration all under one roof. It is not enough for a supplier to just purchase or partner with a third-party integrator and say everything is covered. Chandler confesses that he’s even seen these types of relationships fall apart firsthand, as suppliers and integrators blame each other for errors and delays.
“If we don’t have confidence in our suppliers to get the job done right, how can we expect our colleagues, managers and customers to have confidence in us? It’s as simple as that,” explained Chandler.
“While more and more companies are attempting to provide a ‘single-source’ solution to automated manufacturing systems, no one but Makino has been able to offer equipment, system design, process engineering, project management, integration and training under one roof. Our team has the highest level of confidence in Makino’s engineers. They listen to our needs and concerns intently, not just spout off rehearsed sales pitches. If our team calls up Makino with a question, they know that they’ll get an answer that they can take to the bank.”
Early Adopters of Automation
SEW’s journey into automation began earlier than most other companies, with initial considerations and research beginning in the late ’90s. It was during this time that SEW’s management team observed an unsettling trend of growing fatigue among employees in their plant, resulting from increasing production demands and manual setups and part transfers. These issues were resulting in minor health and safety issues, lost-time accidents and extended seven-day workweeks in which employees were struggling to maintain efficiency. Not only was this workload stressful on employees and their families, but it also led to limitations in their ability to help the company drive increased productivity.
“Our team has the highest level of confidence in Makino’s engineers. They listen to our needs and concerns intently, not just spout off rehearsed sales pitches.”
In 1999, SEW assembled a team to begin evaluating automation as a potential solution for transferring exhaustive work and extended hours from the workers to the machines. The goal was to give operators a healthier work atmosphere and allow for a five-day workweek in which staff members could spend weekends with family.
“SEW prides itself on providing a safe and appreciative work environment for its employees,” said Chandler. “The average employee has now been a part of the company for 19 years! What other company do you know of that can say that today? We believe that much of this loyalty can be attributed to the decision we made to move into automation. This has helped us to continuously challenge our team, while providing them with the flexibility necessary to develop creative solutions.”
Similar to most other manufacturing operations across North America, initial discussions of automated manufacturing systems were met with some hesitancy among SEW’s staff due to fear of job loss. To quash these concerns, management made a commitment to everyone at the company that any current jobs would not be lost as a direct result of automation. Within a culture based on trust and confidence, owners and managers knew that upholding this agreement was essential to long-term success and retaining the expertise that they had nurtured over the years.
SEW’s initial investments in automation started off simple with linear pallet systems. These systems helped the company increase machine utilization and familiarize itself with the methods and processes of automation, but it did not fully address issues of operator ergonomics. Several years later, once confidence was built in the capabilities of robotics, SEW invested in its first fully automated robot-tended system.
“Our first robotic cell was supplied by a reputable Japanese machine supplier and a third-party integrator that they had been partnered with at the time,” said Chandler. “The overall experience of working with robotics was very positive and substantiated our team’s belief that this was the right direction to go; however, it also raised concerns about our selection of suppliers. Not only did installation of the cell take more than twice as long as the supplier initially quoted, but almost every issue that arose during the process resulted in arguments between the two companies. We came away from the experience with some degree of confidence in the technology, but not in the people or the suppliers that we worked with.”
A Partnership Built on Confidence
Despite installation issues, the value of the robotic system was clear in its improvements to both efficiency and operator wellness. Several years later, in 2006, SEW looked to expand its robotic system, but it was again confronted with the challenge of identifying a supplier for equipment and integration.
“The previous integrator was no longer in business, and even if they were, we knew we needed an experienced supplier that could be trusted to uphold their promises,” said Chandler. “Our team had always thought highly of Makino for its machinery, but previously considered their equipment to be excessive for the production requirements of our gearbox housings. However, at IMTS 2006, we saw an automation setup in Makino’s booth that immediately caught our eye. We spoke with their engineers about our expansion plans and learned about their automation and engineering capabilities. We knew they had the machines for the job, but we were pleasantly surprised to learn that they could also provide tooling, fixtures, automation and engineering all under one roof.”
In 2007, SEW Eurodrive hired Makino to take on the expansion of SEW’s existing eight-machine robotic cell. The upgrade consisted of four Makino a71 horizontal machining centers, a second coordinate-measure machine, two additional pedestal robots, a second gantry robot and custom software to facilitate communications between new and existing equipment. Makino managed all aspects of the automated manufacturing system, including third-party equipment, the human-to-machine interface (HMI), process engineering, tooling and fixtures.
“The biggest difference with Makino was that they provided good responses on the spot, demonstrated working knowledge and actually listened to our team members.”
Makino Engineering Services has engineers and project managers with decades of experience creating robust production-ready process for parts with complex geometries, demanding deadlines, challenging budget constraints and Six Sigma standards. These services have been deployed by hundreds of North American manufacturers investing in integrated automated manufacturing systems —each benefiting from guaranteed cycle times, Cpk and cost per part. Every step of these projects is led with single-point contact project management, project engineering, on-site supervision and post-installation training and support.
Makino was not only able to take on SEW’s expansion project, but it also made improvements to the efficiency and productivity of the original cell. Throughout the expansion project, SEW was able to run production orders in the existing cell with only minimal interruption when the final expansion was brought online. Today, the cell is operating 24 hours a day, five days a week, producing 4,500 housings each week.
“Several suppliers that we had talked to turned down this project due to its complexity; some others walked in with the same rehearsed presentation that they delivered to every other potential customer,” said Melvin Story, manufacturing engineering technician at SEW. “The biggest difference with Makino was that they provided good responses on the spot, demonstrated working knowledge and actually listened to our team members.”
According to Paul Woodbury, project engineering team leader at Makino, communication with the SEW team was crucial in overcoming the challenges of the expansion project.
“When you work on a system that was designed and programmed by someone else, you essentially have to reverse-engineer the whole system,” said Woodbury. “Oftentimes, you run into integrators that follow completely different methods and processes than your own, so there can be many challenges in trying to pick up the pieces. This is why full transparency and trust are so crucial for this level of systems engineering. Makino and SEW were able to establish clear definitions and similar visions early on, allowing us to efficiently address issues as they arose and quickly reach the end goal.”
“We were told that the installation would be completed in three months; in truth, we were up and running nearly a week earlier,” said Chandler. “The detail-oriented knowledge and experience that Makino demonstrated gave us a higher degree of confidence than any other automation supplier that we’d previously worked with.”
Establishing Lasting Trust
SEW spent the next several years investing in linear pallet systems to transition the entire plant to a five-day workweek. These investments included two Makino Machining Complexes (MMC2)—one system featuring four A99E horizontal machining centers and another with six a81 horizontal machining centers.
“I think a lot of manufacturers look back to investments made in the years leading up to the recession with regret, but our investments in automation really ended up being a job saver,” said Chandler. “While shops all around us were shutting their doors and laying off their workers, we just had to cut off power to a handful of machines. I think it was during this time that our team truly started to see the benefits of our investments, and trust the direction that we were heading. Had we approached our production methods similar to many other plants by putting an operator at every machine, we would have had to lay off 50 percent or more of our staff.”
“The detail-oriented knowledge and experience that Makino demonstrated gave us a higher degree of confidence than any other automation supplier that we’d previously worked with.”
As production ramped back up following the recession, SEW experienced rapid demand for a second robotic cell to produce a new line of gearboxes. Overall, the company needed to produce 500,000 units per year in the Lyman plant while operating five days per week and without requiring any new hires. The only way to achieve this was through a new automated manufacturing system.
“On every new investment, we look into multiple high-end suppliers to ensure that we are getting the best and most competitive offer; but not much had changed since our previous projects,” said Chandler. “The majority of suppliers were still outsourcing their integration services to third parties. We didn’t want to go down that path again. In 2013, we selected Makino for their comprehensive package of service, support, spare parts, automation, engineering, tooling and fixtures.”
The new cell features an overhead gantry robot that services six a81 horizontal machining centers. Each machine fixture includes one location for machining a raw part and one location for machining a semi-finished part. The gantry robot shuffles parts during a unload/load sequence using a vision system that is attached to the robot carriage to generate offsets for loading parts onto the fixtures.
In order to keep the automated cell in operation, raw parts are continuously delivered by fork lifts. The parts arrive in bins at two areas where a pedestal robot uses a vision system to locate and pick parts from the bins. After removal from the bin, raw parts are presented to a separate vision system to verify that they are of the correct part type before they are placed on a dedicated “raw part” stand for the gantry robot to access.
The gantry robot transports finished parts from each machine and places them on a dedicated “finished part” stand for access by the pedestal robot. The pedestal robot presents the parts to a marking system where they receive a 2D matrix code. Next, the robot moves the parts to a vision system that verifies the matrix code.
In the next stage, finished parts are transferred into a booth containing a smaller pedestal robot. There, the parts are air blasted to remove residual liquid and debris. The booth helps limit noise from the cleaning sequence and captures the chips blown off the parts. Once cleaned, the robot transfers the part to a coordinate measuring machine (CMM) where it is inspected and verified before being delivered to the finished part bin. Fork lifts then remove the full finished part bins from the cell to be prepped for delivery.
The cell is managed by two HMIs which were designed with custom control screens that enable operators to quickly and easily select part types, enable/disable functions, select inspection frequency and type, and view current system information status appropriate for the application. Additionally, the control interfaces provide warnings and information regarding system alarms along with guidance about how to how to resolve the issue.
SEW’s system was designed to run two different part numbers at high volumes, while providing flexibility within the programming to accommodate six other part types. Several of the robots execute tasks within common areas, so complex system coordination is handled by the cell’s controls.
Installation of the automated manufacturing system was completed within projected timelines, and SEW’s cell operated at peak performance on its first production run.
“We trust the reliability of Makino’s machines and the processes that their engineers create,” said Story. “Part quality is non-negotiable for us, so repeatability and accuracy are essential. The a81 machines consistently meet our 13-micron bore tolerances and maintain repeatability within 20 to 30 microns on location tolerances. As a result, our scrap rate is under 1 percent every year, and that includes any casting flaws.”
Operators attended training at Makino’s headquarters in Mason, Ohio, which they found to be the most engaging and informative hands-on experience from any previous supplier.
“We trust the reliability of Makino’s machines and the processes that their engineers create.”
Makino’s training provided operators with an in-depth understanding of their systems’ cell controllers, enabling them to manage systems efficiently with a high-degree of confidence. “When developing the HMI, our team strives for simplicity through standardization of menus and messaging that makes it easy for operators to quickly identify and resolve issues. It’s all about balancing aesthetics and functionality for optimum performance,” explained Woodbury.
Building Bonds of Loyalty
Through its more than a decade-long experience with complex automation systems, SEW believes that it has found the recipe for confident and trustworthy investing. The proof can be found across all areas of the business, including the Lyman plant’s production output, which has grown tenfold with only a 6 percent increase in manpower since the installation of the first automated cell. This has not only helped the plant to retain skilled labor during tough economic cycles, it has also led to improved product costs and greater profitability for years to come.
The Lyman plant is now recognized as the most efficient operation among the company’s global manufacturing network, including its China operation. Nearly 80 percent of all products manufactured in Lyman are now being shipped internationally for assembly and sale. According to Chandler, the efforts made in Lyman are driving an automation trend across SEW globally. The global company is now developing plans for a new plant in Germany that is being dubbed the “plant of the future,” which is expected to draw upon insights from Lyman.
As for what’s next at the Lyman plant, Chandler and his team are already one step ahead of the challenges.
The proof can be found across all areas of the business, including the Lyman plant’s production output, which has grown tenfold with only a 6 percent increase in manpower since the installation of the first automated cell.
“Our investments in this level of technology make it more critical now than ever before to maintain loyalty among our staff. This includes both the older generations that are reaching retirement, as well as bringing in and nurturing new talent,” said Chandler
SEW recently established several programs internally, and with local high schools and technical schools to help grow a new generation of engineers and machinists. As a part of these programs, the company provides inductees with two years of on-the-job experience while the students complete their schooling. The company attests that the majority of these trainees are sticking with the company.
“I think when these younger folks see our facility and the cutting-edge technologies that we work with, it keeps them excited to stick around. This is exactly the type of people that we want and need to raise the bar for the future, so we will continue to provide them with the tools to keep them interested and growing,” said Chandler.
“Makino has earned our confidence, trust and loyalty. Any other supplier would have to work more than twice as hard to earn our business.”
“It all comes back to building confidence in people. We want our team to have confidence in the future of this company, the future of their jobs and the future skills that they can and will develop. Our investments in automated manufacturing systems through Makino are a major contributor to this commitment. Makino has earned our confidence, trust and loyalty. Any other supplier would have to work more than twice as hard to earn our business.”