There is no shortage of information available regarding industry 4.0 technology. Small and medium-size manufacturers curious about these technologies can often find themselves drowning in a sea of whitepapers, blogs, vendors, sales calls, and other information – making it too overwhelming to even begin their journey. While each of these pieces of information has its place, sometimes it’s most effective for manufacturers to cut through the murk and hear a fellow company’s story.
That’s the purpose of a new webinar series co-hosted by The Right Place, Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center - West (Center West), and MiBiz. Owing to the success of this year’s previous series on workforce development, “Build for Now, Build for Future,” this new two-part series, “Stories from the Road” showcases local manufacturers’ journeys implementing industry 4.0 technology. In this first episode, a pair of manufacturers – one a small niche food processor, the other a large contract sheet metal manufacturer – gathered with other experts to discuss how they used industry 4.0 technology to improve their operations.
Like many companies, Conklin-based Umlor Orchards opted to invest in advanced manufacturing technology to keep pace with industry standards and remain competitive. The packaging and storage company primarily handles apples and other fruit and serves as a contract packer for large fruit producers in the region. During peak production, Umlor Orchards employs 30 workers, processing approximately 40 million apples over a given season.
Listen to a recorded version of the webinar here. The “Stories from the Road” webinar series will return on August 31, 2022.
“Something is always going to come up,” said Vince Umlor, president and plant manager at Umlor Orchards, of his decision to invest in advanced technology. “Whether it’s labor shortage, costs or new requirements. You have to be able to change on the fly. If you’re holding back from moving forward technology wise, or any other way, it’s just going to put you back even farther when something new comes up.”
The company opted to begin their industry 4.0 journey by implementing technology that could compensate for human error when sorting apples. Umlor found that fatigue and simple differences in judgment were causing apples to be discarded that actually met the quality standard, or allowing apples through packaging that were not up to quality. The company invested in a vision system that uses infrared imaging to create a 3D model of the apple and evaluate each fruit’s color and detect bruising and other damage. The technology also passes light through the fruit to determine the chemical footprint inside each apple. The vision system takes 25 photos of each fruit and processes 20 apples per second.
During the webinar, Umlor recounted that early on in the implementation of this technology they ran into a situation where the machine began discarding a large amount of apples that looked pristine. Thinking it was a technology issue, they shut the machine down. However, when they cut into the fruit, they found it was totally brown inside.
“Without that technology, those apples would have made it to the store because they looked perfect on the outside,” Umlor said.
Umlor Orchards also uses advanced technologies to implement their bagging equipment to reliably pack each bag with between 3.02 and 3.04 pounds of apples. The technology picks through the apples to optimize each bag, without going over and unnecessarily packing more than they should. Umlor chalks it up to an annual gain of $375,000 through this optimization.
A Culture of Continuous Improvement
Marne-based DeWys Manufacturing was founded on a framework of implementing technology to improve processes and performance, said Mike Stream, director of continuous improvement at the Marne-based contract sheet metal manufacturer. Founded in 1977, DeWys Manufacturing incorporated robotic welders into its workflow in the 90s. However, Stream says the difference between those early automated systems and today’s modern technology comes down to flexibility. Since 2012, DeWys has primarily focused on integrating collaborative robots and data analytics into its operation.
“The reason we’re going down this road, as everyone on this call knows, is there’s a labor shortage,” Stream said during the webinar. “It’s not new. It’s just worse. If you go back to 2010, there was a labor shortage then. It’s just been exemplified after the COVID 19 pandemic. That’s a big reason why we’ve pushed more toward automation.”
The Center West offers a no-cost Industry 4.0 Assessment aimed at taking an individualized approach to adopting advanced manufacturing technologies for your specific operations. The organization also offers an array of other products and services to help assist small and medium-size manufacturers in West Michigan.
DeWys uses data it collects across the plant floor to inform the majority of decision making. Nearly every change, process improvement, or other decision needs data behind it, Stream said.
Stream attributes DeWys’s successes with advanced manufacturing technology to the company’s focus on continuous improvement and its employees' willingness to jump on new technologies.
“I don’t know if it’s as bad as it was, but in the past if people heard we were adding a robot, they thought it meant we were cutting staff,” Stream said. “It doesn’t. You still need staff to run these things. It’s how it can help us make their job easier. Or how we can increase growth without adding more labor hours on them. It’s really about keeping them informed about what the plan is and making sure you have a vision for your company so there are no surprises.”
One of the ways DeWys encourages process improvement is through a bonus structure aimed at promoting ownership and engagement. Under this program, an employee is rewarded half the bonus for suggesting the idea, with the other half paid out once the worker helps implement the process improvement. The company issues the bonus on a quarterly basis.
“They really have to have a vested interest in it and we really feel that helps with sustainability because that gives them that pride in being part of the change,” Stream said.
Some companies may be hesitant to invest in Industry 4.0 technology because they’re afraid it could fail, or may not be implemented properly. However, by keeping investment and implementation of advanced technology initiatives to a controllable level, companies can avoid putting undue strain on their business. If the business is properly shielded from this strain, failure is just part of the journey, according to the webinar participants.
Stream shared a story of DeWys attempting to put a collaborative robot into one of their powder coating booths. The company designed a designated booth and built a cover for the robot to keep the powder out of its vital components. However, despite their efforts, the difference in parts passing through the booth made the robot too challenging to code. That’s how advanced technology implementation works at times, Stream said. DeWys chalked the situation up to a learning experience and moved on.
“Failing doesn’t mean that you’ve failed,” Stream said. “It means that you’ve tried. Hopefully you’ve failed safe and you’ve failed fast…The goal is that you don’t try too hard to where you’re bailing out a sinking ship. It may not always work, but at least you’ve tried.”