18 month return on investment for CHX Products with ABB robot

2015-08-03 - Ten years on since the original installation, plastic promotions manufacturer plans to install more robotic automation to further its success

Taking the plunge into robotic automation has produced a dramatic change for plastic promotions manufacturer CHX Products. Based in Bodmin in Cornwall the small manufacturer employs just fifteen members of staff. Since installing a robot cell 10 years ago, CHX has transformed from struggling to keep up with the competition to a leading maker of plastic promotional merchandise in the UK and international markets.
Previously, the company’s manual-intensive production process had meant it was struggling to match its competitors’ prices and turnaround times, leading to business being lost, particularly to overseas rivals. The processes of moving the products around, applying heat transfers and cutting and boxing were all handled manually, incurring time and cost.
The challenge was clear. CHX needed to drastically cut its costs and lead times in order to boost competitiveness and improve delivery times. In need of a solution, the company was inspired by an exhibition stand held at a plastics injection show by GeKu Automation, an ABB Robotics systems integrator, which had experience of providing automated solutions for similar applications.
CHX duly contacted Geku, which proposed installing a Geku SR250 beam robot to de-mould the parts and an ABB IRB140 to print and remove the moulds from the runner into a container, with the waste being dropped into a granulator for recycling.
Initial scepticism resolved
Andy Knight, Director of CHX Products, admits he had his reservations. Like many UK manufacturers, he wasn’t familiar with the capabilities of industrial robots. “I remember thinking at the time that it all seemed too easy,” he explains. “I asked myself, if it seems easy is it going to work? That’s just a lack of experience, not knowing how clever these bits of kit are.”
Geku was one of several companies that CHX approached to provide a quote for automating the printing process. Unlike the other companies, which did exactly that, Geku also assessed the process as a whole. Through a series of calculations, Andy realised that although automating the whole system would be a costlier investment, the return would be much higher. Geku’s approach paid off, with the company being awarded the project. Nigel Richardson, at Geku Automation comments, “I think Andy’s choice reflects our sound experience and proves that the lowest cost solution is not always the best.”
The fully-automated process took just three months to complete from the original order through to the installation. This included Geku’s design work, machine building, fitting the system and subsequent testing and troubleshooting.
The end result was a faster, less labour-intensive manufacturing process. With the Geku S250 and ABB IRB140 in collaboration, the picking and placing, printing and cutting was performed at a much faster rate, shaving almost a whole week off lead times and enabling greatly improved turnaround of customer orders.
Lights out, production up
CHX took full advantage of the freedom brought by the cell and began operating on a lights-out basis. This added a lot more capacity and what Andy calls, “Free product, essentially. All we had to do was supply the materials. It’s a bit like the elves and the shoemaker – we arrive in the morning and the work has been done.”
The cell helped CHX Products achieve its original goals of reducing its production costs and minimising lead times. A third objective to reduce waste was also met, with all scrap plastic being dropped onto a runner to be granulated and re-used by the machine within seconds.
In addition, the robots have helped to reduce the company’s environmental footprint. By making the product much more consistent, the amount of waste produced was dramatically reduced. Not only that, but CHX’s ability to turn products around cheaply and quickly means that UK companies can now order plastic promotional products cheaply without having to get them shipped in from abroad.
Andy was also surprised at the fast return on investment, which he estimates to have taken just 18 months. Looking back, he believes that there were other benefits that could have been taken into account accruing from the automated system. “I firmly believe the payback could have been much quicker but we didn’t have the forethought or experience to take other factors into consideration at the time.”
Further upgrades
In 2013, CHX decided to upgrade its process to incorporate a vision system. The intention had always been there, however the original robot had not been compatible. When an ex-demo robot cell became available at Geku, CHX quickly took the opportunity to retrofit. With the ability to precisely position the prints according to their design, this system has helped to achieve added improvements in the production process. Previously, lining up the plastic with the various transfers had to be done on a trial and error basis, which incurred lost time through interruptions to the process as well as added wastage.
When Andy Knight was asked how robot automation has helped to shape his Cornwall business, his response was, “Looking back, we feel the robots have made a big difference. Over the last five years we’ve been in a hideous recession, but now we’re on to another growth spurt. We’re fully wedded to the idea of integrating more automation to help new products get online quickly and cheaply.”
Future plans
CHX has also started planning how it can further develop its services to keep up with the demands of tomorrow. The company is now looking at incorporating an ABB FlexPicker to put pins on the back of the badges in the next 12 months, a process which is currently done by hand.
The idea of personalised badges has also been mentioned, proving that Andy Knight has a keen awareness of the growing relevance of ‘Industry 4.0’. ‘Industry 4.0’ and its ‘five characteristics of a smart factory’ includes a hypothesis that the demand for one-off goods will grow tenfold in the not so distant future, just as the demand for 24-hour delivery has recently become the norm.
Whatever direction CHX decides to take, it is certain to be a success. Andy Knight summarises, “The plan is to grow over three times our current size over the next five years. Robots will definitely play a part in that.”

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    The orginal first IRB 140 robot for CHX
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