Collaborative Robots Helping US Manufacturers to Compete Globally

A Baxter robot collects injection molded medicine dose cups that Vanguard Plastics Corp. makes in a quantity of 30 million per year. Baxter collects and packages the cups for delivery.
Photo by Mark Langlois.

Mark Langlois
Senior Editor
Design-2-Part Magazine

When Chris Budnick, president of Vanguard Plastics Corp. (, talks about ‘Made in America,’ he points to his three Baxter collaborative robots. If he has a problem with one, he calls someone for help at the Boston headquarters of Rethink Robotics, Baxter’s manufacturer.

At Donnelly Custom Manufacturing (, President Ron Kirscht said the company runs a robot beside nearly every one of its 35 injection molding machines. That investment, plus the company’s robust ERP software program, helps Donnelly thrive in Minnesota.

“You have to use good technology to compete. That’s where high quality comes from,” said Greg Monson, operations manager at Flambeau, Inc. (, a contract manufacturer of injection- and blow-molded parts in Baraboo, Wisconsin, in a phone interview. He said Flambeau’s administration noticed the quality improvement when he added a Baxter robot to the manufacturing mix. “They see us using our technology to move the company forward.”

Baxter is a collaborative robot, a new generation of robots that are deemed safe enough to work next to people. On an early summer day in June, that’s very much in evidence at Vanguard Plastics’ facility in Southington, Connecticut, where high school junior Matt Gaciarz is programming a Baxter Robot to identify flaws in a dash panel seal assembly. Gaciarz, a member of a Southington High School robotics team that placed fourth out of 600 teams nationwide, is very comfortable working with Baxter. “The second it bumps into me, it shuts off,” Gaciarz told Design-2-Part Magazine.

Helping a US Manufacturing Resurgence
Robots and high technology investments are two factors cited in a March 2016 study of global competitiveness that argues the United States will again be the world’s top manufacturing nation by 2020. The Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited and the Council on Competitiveness study builds on earlier research they conducted in 2010 and 2013 that shows manufacturers in the U.S. are catching up to China, the world’s leading manufacturing country.

One catch-all phrase, “advanced technologies,” fuels the catch-up, the study said. American manufacturers like Vanguard, Donnelly, and Flambeau are using robots, plus computer software, to compete with the aid of collaborative robots, also called co-robots or, simply, ‘cobots.’ They’re using advanced materials, inter-connected machines, copyright protection, management software, and the internet of things. The catch-up relies on science and innovation, university-manufacturing cooperation, foreign direct investment, and infrastructure improvements.

“In fact, technology-intensive sectors dominate the global manufacturing landscape in most advanced economies and appear to offer a strong path to achieve or sustain manufacturing competitiveness,” the report said in its executive summary.

American manufacturing firms and the U.S. government have embraced the importance of advanced technologies. According to the study, corporate executives surveyed in the U.S., Europe, and China said that government policies have improved in the last three years in the areas of innovation, science, and technology transfer, and that other government policies support the increased use of advanced technologies designed to improve competitiveness. Intellectual property protection was also cited as a top U.S. advantage, and was absent from China’s advantages. Among the U.S. disadvantages noted in the report were corporate tax rates, healthcare policies, labor laws, and taxation on foreign earnings.

Technology upgrades, along with the benefits of working with local suppliers, are helping to drive Vanguard forward. Budnick’s use of Baxter robots, for example, has helped him create a long-term relationship with Rethink Robotics. He knows the company’s sales manager, its engineers, and the president at its Boston headquarters.

If Budnick has a problem with a Wittmann Battenfeld Cartesian robot, he calls for the service technician he prefers at its Torrington, Connecticut, plant. That’s a 40-minute drive from Vanguard, a custom plastic injection molding firm in Southington, Connecticut. He added 21 Wittmann Battenfeld machines and outgrew the space his father, Lawrence Budnick Jr., needed in 1972 when he founded the firm with a single machine.

If Vanguard has trouble with a Branson ultrasonic welder, Budnick calls Branson headquarters in Danbury, Connecticut. That’s 45 minutes away. He won’t let a broken machine slow down his 40 workers. “We’re selling time,” Budnick said in an interview at his Southington plant. “Our up-time has to be there. We can’t let a machine sit down for a day. You can blow up your whole week that way.”

For a manufacturing company in the United States, a ‘Made in the USA’ commitment to work with local suppliers has numerous advantages. “We have a close working relationship with these firms,” he continued. “If I have a machine down, I send a driver up to Torrington for the part,” Budnick said. Budnick buys his injection molds in Tolland and Dayville—both Connecticut towns—or in Whately, Massachusetts. “In an hour and 20 minutes, I can talk to them face-to-face. They’re all family businesses. We’re able to understand each other a lot better.”

Vanguard has always been open to new technology, having grown into its 20,000-square-foot plant by acquiring one new machine after another. Budnick retires the new machines before they wear out and begin to make defective parts, and he replaces them with newer, better machines. His father installed an Apple IIE and hired someone to write a manufacturing program for it in the 1980s.

“We saw the very first Baxters,” Budnick recalls, referring to Vanguard’s role as a beta test site for the robots. A salesman told him about Baxter because the salesman knew how much Vanguard relied on new technology. Vanguard was then invited to try the robot by the people at Rethink Robotics. “These weren’t machine shop guys; these were MIT guys. They wanted to know what the user was going to want,” Budnick said. His father was brutally honest in his feedback. Lawrence Budnick told the MIT guys that Baxter needed 100 percent change. “Robots aren’t suitable for everything. There are certain things they’re good at.”

Machine Tending and Part Handling
Visitors to Donnelly Custom Manufacturing in Alexandria, Minnesota, see 32 injection molding machines, plus three smaller machines, in the 108,000-square-foot plant. The 32 are all tended by industrial robots that move parts to conveyor belts for packaging and shipment, said Donnelly President Ron Kirscht. Donnelly also owns two Baxter robots, and Kirscht expects he’ll either buy new Baxters or Rethink’s newest collaborative robot, Sawyer, when he makes his next robot purchase.

Roughly 90 percent of Donnelly’s parts are sold to U.S. OEMs. In some years, 9 percent or 12 percent are sold to non-U.S. firms.

“We’ve been invited to set up manufacturing facilities in Eastern Europe, Mexico, and China by our customers, but we decided that’s not for us. We do think manufacturing is the backbone of the American economy,” said Kirscht in a phone interview. “We can’t all sell each other our shirts.”

Donnelly found a niche in short-run custom molded plastic parts, but the reason the niche is available is that the work is highly complex and an organizational nightmare. Short runs mean the company’s average run lasts only 11 hours, then it’s on to the next part. Most firms would rather run 50 million parts five times, rather than 1 million parts 50 times. Baxter fits in at Donnelly because it can change tasks quickly. Unlike the older generation industrial robots, Baxter sits on a pedestal and can be moved from work cell to work cell in minutes. Industrial robots, on the other hand, can weigh thousands of pounds. They also require steel cages around them to protect workers, and take weeks to move.

A production employee removes a completed set of parts for final packaging while Baxter begins loading molded parts on the next pre-packaging and counting fixture available.
Photo courtesy of Donnelly Custom Manufacturing, Alexandria, Minnesota.

Kirscht relies on IQMS, an enterprise resource planning software, to track the company’s annual 13,000 mold change-overs, 2,800 molds, 600 materials, 35 machines, 34 robots, and 220 employees. Kirscht said that IQMS helps him and the company’s employees track every single product detail. It helps Donnelly compete.

“I use it every day to look at sales history, to look up what parts have run in what machine, almost anything. It’s practically limitless,” said Darla Brink, Donnelly’s director of planning and customer logistics, in a video on Donnelly’s website.

“Our goal is to deliver good products on time, and we need to be able to use IQMS at 2 a.m. Saturday morning to make good decisions,” said Jerry Bienias, vice president of operations for the 24/7 firm, in a phone interview.

A Need for Speed, Precision, and Adaptability
At Flambeau, Inc., in Baraboo, Wisconsin, operations manager Greg Monson said Rethink Robotics sent in a team of people to teach staff how to program Baxter when Flambeau bought the first edition of the collaborative robot. He expects to buy Rethink’s next generation robot—Sawyer—soon, because collaborative robots help Flambeau’s staff compete internationally. Smaller and lighter in weight than Baxter, Sawyer is designed to handle higher speed, higher precision tasks, such as machine tending and circuit board testing, and is said to change applications quickly while adapting to the variability of its work environment.

“We have two more applications coming up, and in the past, we’d have considered Baxter,” Monson said. Every software upgrade makes Baxter faster and more accurate, but Monson saw a demonstration of Rethink’s next generation robot, Sawyer. He said Sawyer, a single-armed robot, has a heavier payload, a longer reach, and is more accurate than Baxter. “It’s a logical progression for the company. We’re probably buying a Sawyer. It’s absolutely helping us compete.”

Monson said when workers first unboxed Baxter, word spread quickly through the plant that people might lose their jobs. Monson called a meeting for all three shifts, 165 people, in the 130,000-square-foot Baraboo plant. He demonstrated Baxter to them. “I told them no one would lose their job. I said it will do the most boring jobs in the plant.”

What he really told them was he was the only one likely to lose his job. Management would fire him if Baxter didn’t work out. They seemed content with that idea.

Once plant workers saw Baxter take over the boring jobs, they relaxed, Monson said. Baxter isn’t just picking up or boxing parts. Baxter checks quality. If a bad part appears, Baxter shuts off the machine and people fix it. “I used to have a person sit there, wait 35 seconds for a part to be molded, and then check it for quality. They were going out of their minds with boredom. Now Baxter does that,” Monson said. Quality improved.

Monson said Rethink is constantly improving its robots. What started as accurate to within 5 or 6 millimeters is now accurate to 2 millimeters. That allowed Flambeau to put Baxter on a packing job that required Baxter to place six parts in a layer inside a box in a tight formation, followed by the next layer.

Rethink Robotics communicates with its manufacturing clients and listens to what they say about its robots, said Brian Benoit, senior project manager with Rethink, in a phone interview. He said Sawyer was a natural progression as the robotics firm listened to its customers, who asked for a faster, more accurate robot that could carry a heavier payload. They also wanted a smaller robot. Benoit explained that for the robot to remain safe, regulations set limits on the weight and speed. Benoit said the regulations say it can’t move too fast or carry too much weight—and still be near people.

Benoit said he expects more uses will be found inside factories for Baxter and Sawyer, because people in those plants will see the robots and figure out more uses. In some instances, that may lead Rethink Robotics to design “application-specific” robots. Once a person knows exactly what they want a robot to do, Rethink may design a robot for that specific task. He said that while all that thinking takes place in manufacturing plants, scientists in universities and around the world are also trying to figure out new uses for Baxter.

The holy grail of robot discoveries will be a kitchen or home robot that can unload a dishwasher and navigate a home. Benoit said while that’s the goal for many researchers, it isn’t on hand just yet. Rethink Robotics isn’t working on that challenge. It works on manufacturing robots.

“Since we’re in a manufacturing space, it has to work all the time, every time, 1,000 out of 1,000,” Benoit said. “We have a very laser focus on the manufacturing world.

“We think collaborative robots help with making manufacturing remain local,” continued Benoit. “Collaborative robots are a piece to reshoring. You’re normalizing some of the competitive advantages some regions have.”

Monson agrees with Benoit about Baxter. “It’s keeping our prices competitive so parts aren’t moving to Mexico or China,” he said. “They’re looking to source [parts] with us.”

The whole industry of collaborative robots appears to be entering a period of steady growth.

A June market study by BCC Research, “Robotics: Technologies and Global Markets,” concluded that “the robotics industry has undergone fundamental changes. The age of the 'collaborative robot' signals the beginning of a new industrial era whereby robots work in tandem with their human counterparts.” BCC Research describes a collaborative robot as "a machine capable of sharing workspace with humans and simultaneously working on the same work piece—it represents the opening of a new industrial era in which robots were seen less as tools and more as a co-worker," wrote BCC Research Analyst James Wilson.

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