Robots ''Unchain'' Productivity in Middle America
Hard-working folks, robots and automation making for major productivity gains in the boyhood home town of Ronald Reagan.
Seems like ''making history'' is something the community of Dixon, Illinois has been known for since it was first settled in 1828 by Joseph Agee, a pioneer and part-time Indian guide. Probably best-known for its moniker ''The Boyhood Home of Ronald Reagan,'' Dixon's history-making roots began over a century ago when a 23-year old volunteer soldier, a lanky young upstart named Captain Abraham Lincoln, commanded a company of volunteers at Fort Dixon which was built on the banks of the Rock River. Other famous people stationed at Fort Dixon included Jefferson Davis and Zachary Taylor.
Today, the city of Dixon is a typical portrait of Middle America. Some 16,000 hard-working residents inhabit the bustling community. The river still runs through it. The statue of Abe Lincoln still stands proud and tall. And the boyhood residence of Ronald Reagan has been restored to its 1920's ambience. And productivity of the typical American manufacturer is on the rise as evidenced by one of Dixon's largest employers-Allied Locke Industries.
Founded in 1965 by Robert L. Crowson, Allied Locke (known then as Allied Chains Inc.) manufactured steel detachable chain for the agricultural market. Over the years, Allied Locke has been making productive and profitable history through shrewd and timely acquisitions, mergers, and continually putting innovative technology into place.
In 1978, Allied Chains purchased Locke Steel Chain Company of Huntington, Indiana, another well-known manufacturer of agricultural chains since 1897, and the company took on the name it bears today.
In 1985, Allied Locke purchased some equipment and hired some of the employees of sprocket manufacturer, Cullman Industries, as they were discontinuing their operations. In 1988, Allied Locke purchased Chain Engineering Company, Canton, Connecticut that had been an importer and marketer of precision roller chains giving Allied-Locke the new position as one of the major marketers of precision roller chain in the U.S.
But it didn't stop there. In 1992, Allied Locke purchased Moline Corporation, St. Charles, Illinois who had been producing cast, combination and all steel industrial chains. And the beat went on. 1997 saw the purchase of Sheldon Engineering, Inc., a producer of cast chains and sprockets made from manganese steel and high alloy steels.
Today, Allied Locke Industries boasts over 300 employees who are making some productive history of their own in a 405,000 square foot facility slated for a further 20,000 foot expansion in the Spring and yet another 15,000 square feet in the Fall of 2004. Allied Locke Industries manufacturers everything from bicycle chains to giant chains with 65-pound individual links that are two feet in length. The company also manufactures chain sprockets as well. Allied Locke chains are used in agricultural applications such as in combines and corn-pickers; chains for wastewater treatment plants; chains that move huge and heavy cement buckets; chains that gently move citrus from the field to the processing plant; chains that are used in the pulp and paper industry; and the chains you see on big earth-moving equipment just to name a few of many applications.
Embracing Change...Embracing Technology.
Allied Locke Industries has become one of the largest and fastest-growing manufacturers of chains and sprockets in the U.S. The company is powered by a group of people...both management and labor...who have embraced the idea of high technology...people working side-by-side with robots and other fully automated equipment to increase speed, productivity, quality and delivery times in order to compete successfully in the U.S. as well as in the global arena.
According to Bill Crowson, President of Allied-Locke Industries, ''Yes, we have been affected by the climate and calamities everyone else has been facing, but we have positioned ourselves to meet it head on. We have always been big on incorporating new technology and staying at the forefront in our industry. Always embracing new technology has served us well. For most manufacturers, it is almost a foregone conclusion that the 4th Quarter will be sluggish. Although the first three quarters of the year were not the best, the traditionally slow 4th Quarter has been good to us. Our October was extremely strong and November just about the same. Probably the best 4th Quarter we have had in some years.''
Jeff Shoemaker, Industrial Division Engineer, said ''We are seeing an upswing in inquiries, in proposals and in orders. It looks like 2004 will be a very strong year for us. Obviously, we owe this, in part, to an economy which we feel has turned the corner, but also because of our constant commitment to and investment in innovative technologies like robotics. In addition to our acquisitions and mergers, probably the single most important step in our success has been the implementation of robotics and automation throughout our facility.
''We have worked with leading robotics companies like Rixan Associates/Mitsubishi Robotics which has greatly enhanced our productivity. For example, prior to adding our Mitsubishi robots, we had one area of our manufacturing process where we used 5 people to take chain pins (ranging in size from 3/8'' diameter to ¾'' diameter) from a staging or make ready area and place them in ''pin-drilling'' machines to drill cotter pin holes through each pin. The pins were then removed from the pin-drilling machine, again by hand, and placed in bins.
These five people, working a total of two shifts (approximately 19 hours) fed an average of 4800 pins into the pin drilling machine. It was painstakingly labor-intensive, not to speak of being repetitious and boring for the people loading the pins. The solution? We installed two 6-axis Mitsubishi robots in the same work area doing the work of those five people. The result? While the five ''humans'' worked two shifts, and loaded/removed 4800 pins in a 19-hour period, the two robots now work an 8-hour ''non-stop'' shift and can ''pick and place'' 4800 pins in one shift with an incredible 8-second cycle time for each pin. ...a huge increase in productivity without the human element of people taking breaks, sick days, vacation days and there are no benefits to pay--just pure and plain unchained productivity. We were able to completely eliminate the 'human' night shift.''
So, you may ask, what about those five workers? Did they join the ranks of the unemployed? ''Absolutely not,'' Shoemaker was quick to add. ''With the addition of robots and automation, we have not had to eliminate any jobs, but we have not added any jobs either. We felt the employees' time and talents could be better utilized in other positions in our plant. Their talents were being under-utilized in a ''pick and place'' situation that could easily be handled by robots.
''Currently, we have a compliment of 6 Mitsubishi 6-axis robots and 1 Samsung robot (20kg kilogram payload) hard at work on a daily basis in our plant. One of our Mitsubishi robots works in our sprocket area feeding sprockets into an induction hardening machine for heat treating. The robot picks up a stack of 10 sprockets and places them into the induction hardening machine for heat treating. This is approximately a two minute operation, so you can see how productive these robots are rather than having a human loading sprockets individually, and then idly and unproductively waiting for the completion of the two minute heat treating cycle. We knew there were other more productive things these people could be doing rather than placing, standing and waiting.
''We use our Samsung robot in a hot forming operation for chain side bars. The robot will pick a chain side bar, place it in the induction heating machine, remove it, and then place it in an hydraulic press which forms it into a 90-degree piece. Again, it is much quicker, safer and more productive than utilizing the human element in this area.
Ironically, for our applications, Mitsubishi was recommended by one if its competitors who called on us. We researched a lot of robots and talked to numerous robotic engineering experts. We eventually chose Rixan/Mitsubishi because it has a great reputation for quality, reliability, dependability and control. Our Mitsubishi robots work under some very extreme conditions, but they keep on performing flawlessly. It may not be the cheapest robot out there, but we feel it is the best. Just as important is the company behind the robot.''
''We are extremely happy with Rixan/Mitsubishi. The people at Rixan Associates are always there whenever we need them, even if it is just to answer a quick question via telephone or e-mail, to perform regularly-scheduled maintenance, or if a robot needs servicing. The Mitsubishi robot has a very good record of uptime with us which aids in increased productivity. Rixan also provided us with free training which many of the other robotics companies don't do. This was an important factor when we considered adding robots. So, it's not just buying a robot, but the company that stands behind it. That was a major consideration in our selection process.''
What's next in ''unchaining'' even more productivity for Allied-Locke Industries? To accommodate increased business, Shoemaker added, ''an 15,000 square foot addition is due to start after the first of the year, with an additional 20,000 square foot addition planned for Spring '04. And yes, more robots and more automation to keep us competitive.''
For this chain and sprocket manufacturer in historic Dixon, Illinois, moving the manufacturing process to robotics and automation has truly ''unchained'' productivity and moved the company to the forefront in the industry.
Today, Allied-Locke Industries, which does both national and international business, is comprised of four divisions: The Agricultural Chain Division; The Precision Roller Chain Division; The Industrial Chain Division; and The Sprocket Division. And they not only keep making history through innovation and by embracing high technology, but by manufacturing a very high quality product in Middle America...Dixon, Illinois.
Rixan Associates, Inc., Dayton, Ohio, is the exclusive North American Distributor and Service Center for Mitsubishi robotics.