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Clearing Bottlenecks in the Mountains: A Morrill Motors Case Study
The town of Erwin is just a 2-mile hike off the Appalachian Trail where East Tennessee borders North Carolina. Native Americans once used this area, like so many communities in these mountains, as hunting ground. Even today, Erwin residents uncover arrowheads or other treasures in their gardens. Morrill Motors, located in the center of Erwin, also unearthed valuable assets recently while automating a portion of their unit-bearing motor assembly line.
Over more than 60 years in business, Morrill Motors is a leading manufacturer of long life, 1- to 25-watt unit-bearing motors used in a wide variety of industrial, commercial and residential product applications. They can be found in everything from supermarket display cases and beer coolers to commercial ice machines and beverage dispensers.
But for all its expertise in product performance, Morrill Motor's Erwin plant was encountering problems in keeping its production line performing at peak. A human operator would first load a motor housing onto the mandrel on an Acme multi-spindle machine, then remove the part after the front side was machined. Another operator would load it on a Borematic single-spindle machine to finish the back side. This created productivity challenges that were tailor-made for a robotics solution.
Plant Manager Shannon Vaughn remembers that they were challenged by all kinds of problems. "Inconsistent loading styles from shift to shift slowed production," he said. "Sometimes the hand-loaded part was not oriented correctly. Much of the time 4,000 ? 5,000 parts were tied up in the bottlenecked line. Productivity was flat."
The company was forced to absorb the overhead costs of running three shifts, six days a week. In addition to productivity issues, Morrill also had concerns about worker safety and high turnover. Operators would have to reach into the machine to load and unload. Sprays of coolant would often contact their skin, sometimes causing irritation and undermining the company's focus on safety.
"We've been making motors in the heart of this 640,000-acre Cherokee National Forest since the mid '60s," Vaughn noted. "We understand that a good work environment and quality of life are very important to the people here." But the tedious, laborious work caused an average of three operators a month to quit. Time and resources spent training new hires were an ongoing issue.
Vaughn, Process Engineer Kevin Penland, and other company decision-makers knew they needed a productivity-enhancing solution to these challenges. A Stäubli Model RX130 robot proved to have the ideal combination of speed, precision and reliability, creating true single piece flow. "Thanks to Stäubli Robotics" Vaughn says, "our throughput jumped 25 percent, raising part production from a low of 2,500 to a steady 3,700 parts a day. Instead of 4,000 parts in the line, there are typically just ten."
The plant's consistency and quality rose dramatically. Overtime cost disappeared. "Before we automated, we had been running three shifts everyday, six days a week," Vaughn said. "Now we've been able to shut our doors on Saturday. That saved a lot of overhead. And the five-day work week meant a happier workforce."
Process Engineer Kevin Penland was impressed with the ease of programming and integration he found with Stäubli Robotics. "After taking their robotics integration training, we were able to do all integration internally. That saved the $80,000 it would have cost to use a third party systems integrator. It is very user friendly," Penland says. "We had it up and running ourselves. Stäubli technicians just came out to do a final check with us."
Penland personifies the resourceful spirit upon which Morrill Motors was built. Founder Wayne J. Morrill had attracted great attention in the 1920s as an undergraduate electrical engineering student at Purdue University when he contributed to the design of the first computer capable of complex computations. He later published a paper defining the design and performance of single-phase electric motors. His theory was so advanced it is referred to as a "classic." It is still being taught in universities and has been adapted to modern computer processes.
As an innovator at General Electric in the 1940s, Morrill led the design of the first unit bearing motor to meet the need of long-life fan motors. After opening Morrill Motors in Indiana in 1946, he developed a new type of portable generator for use in the field by armed forces.
Paul Farnor and Jim Mitchell purchased Morrill's firm in 1998 and continued his technological leadership while expanding the company's core competencies. They soon merged Morrill Motors with both R. M. Engineering, a machine shop with full tool and die capabilities, and A. B. Plastics, a custom plastics injection molding facility. Growing again in 2003, Morrill Motors formed a joint venture in China: Morrill Global Motors. Even before it became a part of parent company Regal Beloit Corporation in 2007, Morrill was serving customers around the world shipping to Germany, Sweden, United Kingdom, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, China, and South America.
Robotics has helped the company make cost reductions in a host of areas, and greatly improved its safety record, with zero injuries since the line was automated over a year ago. Parts loaders who wanted to stay on with the company moved into more satisfying jobs.
Vaughn says there were cost savings in everything from training to stocking. ?We were able to set up a leaner, Kanban inventory system and make better use of space. Plus, the Stäubli robot took away some of the tedious aspects of working here, opening opportunities more suited to the skills and capabilities of our people."
Going forward, the plant has purchased another robot for a phase two implementation, and is preparing to integrate more automation in the future for even higher efficiencies. "Morrill Motors has come a long way since the days it operated out of a basement in Ft. Wayne," Vaughn observed, "We're doing everything we can to maintain Wayne Morrill's tradition of innovation, while fulfilling the dreams of those here in the mountains who build his motors today."