Achieving “Zero Waste”

By James McKew

Having braved through the pandemic for nearly two years, global economies and businesses had to quickly adapt to changes in regulations and demand. Many people were forced to put a pause on frontline jobs, while many others were forced to work from home (WFH). Due to the economic uncertainty going forward, mental health of many people in metropolitan cities to rural regions all suffered. Whether a business is in manufacturing, services, or even medicine, there are tremendous changes going forward that demand change, on double time.

As vaccinations and treatment protocols trickled in globally, businesses were able to return to their operations. Due to a reduced workforce and resources, manufacturers faced more challenges than before the pandemic, from production throughputs to defects and rework. Rework of defects can be extremely costly and time-consuming, and can deteriorate already thin margins even further into the red. Defective products that may have made it past the line into the market may also create health and safety hazards, causing costly returns, complaints, lawsuits, financial losses, environmental impact, and more. From specialised fields such as medical diagnostics, defects in terms of human errors, can cause tremendous anxiety and even hardship for patients who may have received erroneous test results from their medical check-ups, including the likes of RT-PCR tests for COVID-19. For non-manufacturing businesses such as services, for example in food and beverage, having human errors in the delivery can result in customer complaints, food waste, and financial losses.

For many industries, from manufacturing, services, hospitality, science, and medicine, there is increasingly a movement that complements people in these sectors, while providing productivity, quality, cost-effectiveness, and reduced wastage, through the man-machine synergy of adopting collaborative robots (cobots). This was especially evident as we observed through the pandemic from early 2020 to late 2021.

Understanding defects and waste

At the manufacturing front, the concept of zero defects is not new. Since Philip Crosby coined the term in his book “Quality is Free” in the 1970s, manufacturers were relentless in pursuing the dream of creating products that were made right from the start, and worked right straight out of the factory floor. Defects in products are expensive to remediate, and if slipped past the floor to the market, can have dire consequences in both reputation and the bottomline. With every defect, there will be wastage as many raw materials once transformed, can never be truly reversed into raw materials, and will become waste that impacts the environment, worsening our already colossal muddy footprint on earth.

In the food and beverage industry, waste and defects are almost synonymous. You cannot reverse food ingredients once cooked or produced. In the food & beverage industry, the repercussions can be as small as a single restaurant, to larger restaurant chains or even upstream mass production food lines catering to a nation. With the pandemic shaving off profits to remain competitive and having financial burdens from new or extended loans, businesses have to ensure processes are as error-free as possible, not only to reduce waste and defects, but to scavenge whatever slivers of margins that remain to stay afloat.

In technology, science and medicine, human errors can be deadly. Errors can make or break a researcher’s career, but also cripple worthy research into oblivion with errors that escalate into a domino effect of compounded errors. In medical diagnostics, errors can cause trauma to patients, or let slip infected individuals to cause potential “super spreader” should lapses in diagnostics fail to detect already infected people. Such errors can be grave and even unforgivable.

Better quality and throughput

The total quality management (TQM) movement invented by Walter Shewhart in the 1930s, which subsequently the greats of Joseph Juran, Edwards Deming, Philip Crosby, and Kaoru Ishikawa refined, led to the “kaizen” (continuous improvement) we know today. At its root, any production process must be able to assure quality of a product at the finished line, devoid of defects. The process should be efficient and cost-efficient, and there is an assurance of safety to the workers. Through the revolutions of industries through the decades, we are already at Industry 4.0, where automation is the enabler of success.

For example, in a modern factory, cobots with machine vision cameras can be programmed to evaluate and identify defective components during sub-assembly, sieved out for rework on another process, while working components are assembled together for a complete product. Such automation can afford a factory with quality inspection and measurement, precise workflows, minimal to no deviation or human intervention. The machine vision data are instantly uploaded to a data centre for traceability of the entire production process. Such automation allows human operators to move on to supervisory or quality control tasks, relegating the cobots to perform mechanical, repetitive, precise, and dangerous tasks. 

Better safety and lesser errors with human-cobot synergy

From human factor studies in surgery to aviation, it has been shown that human errors due to fatigue can gravely affect outcomes of any process especially if such a process demands an extended period of time and precision procedures. In a critical sector such as aviation, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) passed rules in 2011 to ensure that airline pilots would not be fatigued to the point of errors and endangering lives and operations, with limitations on flight time, flight duty, rest, and number of pilots on board at one time. Through recent years, commercial jets are equipped with increasing automation and onboard computers, to reduce the likelihood of errors due to fatigue or other human factors, such as the “flight envelope protection.”

Therefore, automation is key to supplementing our human operations to stave off potential human errors and fatigue. In 2020, the global collaborative robot market was estimated to be worth USD 401.25 million. Through the pandemic, the need for streamlined and error-free production became more critical than before, since raw materials and resources had to be weighed carefully, with much less margin for waste or errors due to tightened finances and reduced workforce. Industries in various sectors began to explore the use of automation to reduce human errors, reduce waste, and reduce defects, through the judicial choice of using industrial (large-scale) robots, as well as cobots that work effectively and harmlessly alongside human operators.

In a manufacturing plant, the most common areas that may result in defects and waste are when there are missing cycle times during “pick and place” applications, parts that were dropped and therefore deformed, or the improper placement of hole punches along a sub-assembly process. These tend to be repetitive processes, and if done manually, will result in human errors and therefore defects. Therefore, repeated processes in a manufacturing plant are ideally suited to be delegated to cobots, which are lightweight, versatile, easy to programme and use, adaptable to new tasks with fast reconfiguration, and highly precise to task variation of less than 30 microns. Cobots can repeat the same tasks over and over without fail, without stopping for tea and meals, and without errors.

India-based automotive component manufacturer Craft and Technik Industries (CATI) bore testimony to the successful transformation to deploy cobots at their lines. Being a small and medium-sized enterprise, most manufacturing tasks at CATI were handled manually. After implementing a UR10 cobot for loading and unloading of a vertical CNC machine and automatic inspection processes, CATI managed to manufacture 40,000 parts with zero defects or customer rejections, with a 15 to 20 percent increase in production throughput. 

Errors are inevitable, since to err is human. However, with our human intelligence, we have braved summits and soared into the skies. It is with the same intelligence we have empowered ourselves with the tools such as cobots, to work alongside us to continue to succeed and sustain the ecosystem we live in.

About the Author: James McKew (pictured above) is the Regional Director Asia-Pacific Universal Robots. This is an opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of this publication.

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