Bay Area manufacturing mainstay Westec Plastics has been in business since 1969. They serve clients all over the country from a 46,000 square foot facility that houses 23 injection-molding machines, a full-service tool room, and an ISO Class 8 clean room for medical applications. In spite of their reputation as one of the Bay Area’s most well known and respected manufacturing operations, spiraling local labor and housing costs in recent years have made it nearly impossible to hire machine operators fast enough to fully staff their machines. They’d tried automation before, and found traditional robotic solutions to be too expensive, and too inflexible for their needs.
How Westec Used Automation to Beat the Labor Shortage and Win New Business
October 24th, 2022 • 5 min read
The Challenge of Automating a High-Mix Facility
Westec runs a high-mix facility, where the same machine may be repurposed from day to day depending on customer orders. “In the contract manufacturing industry, the biggest problem with automation is that we’re constantly changing jobs.,” says Westec President Tammy Barras. “We’re not producing our own products 52 weeks a year. It’s really hard to automate a program that only runs for three weeks or a month. You don’t want to buy a robot and have it sit around and gather dust most of the time.”
Yet Westec also struggled to hire enough machine operators to meet demand, and found that they were losing business to more inexpensive facilities in the midwest. They were eager to automate, but unsure where to start. Traditional automation solutions just wouldn’t work – they were for bigger facilities with a lot of engineering resources and enough capital to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on system integrators. Westec needed a low cost solution that could be deployed – or redeployed – in days or minutes, not weeks or months.
Pre-Trained, AI-Powered Robots to the Rescue
It was during her search for the answer to her automation woes that Barras heard about Rapid Robotics. The Rapid Machine Operator (RMO) comes out of the box with everything Westec needed:
State-of-the-art computer vision, enabling the robot to take on a variety of tasks
Pre-trained AI capable of quickly learning and repeating a new operation
Flexible end-of-arm tooling to match most common operations
A nothing-to-lose cost of $2,100 a month, with no up-front expenditure
Barras figured she didn’t have much to lose if it didn’t work out.
It was 2020, and Westec had a new contract to mold 10 million plastic PCR chips for COVID-19 tests. Within a week, the Rapid Robotics RMO nicknamed “Kim” was working on the line, neatly cutting the plastic gates between trays that came out of Westec’s four-cavity injection molding machine.
Then, partway through the job, Westec’s customer canceled their order. With an old-school robot, this would have turned a successful automation deployment into a costly fiasco, “Had we automated this program simply for this one product, Kim would have been getting all dusty sitting lonely in the corner doing nothing. Our ROI would have never been recovered.” Barras says.
With the RMO’s pre-trained AI, however, Westec was able to redeploy Kim to another task in a matter of minutes. Now, the cobot helps human operators with pad printing everything from medical devices to thermostat housings.
Winning New Business and Saving Money on Operations
Teaming Kim with a human operator made production more consistent, Barras says. “Having a robot paired with a human operator stabilizes the outcome. The operator naturally gets into a rhythm to keep up with the robot’s pace.”
When operators go on their scheduled breaks, they can even stage Kim with work materials and let her get on with the printing unattended. “If we didn’t have Kim, that would be downtime that we wouldn’t be producing,” Barras says. Automating pad printing at Westec is saving the company about $60,000 per year.
Kim was just the first of three RMOs deployed at Westec. The other two work in areas of the facility helping Westec hit holiday production targets, and winning business that might have been out of reach otherwise.
For 17 years, Westec has manufactured the popular Aeropress coffee maker, molding, heat stamping and packaging each unit. Most months, Westec produces about 50,000 units. But during the holiday crunch, Westec runs the job full time, ramping production 50% to 75,000 units per month.
The customer wanted Westec to do the job for the same price that a Midwest facility had originally quoted, despite Westec’s higher costs for labor, energy and just about everything else. Westec’s response: no problem. The new RMOs, nicknamed “Melvin'' and “Nancy”, allowed Westec to free up six human operators for other tasks, giving them a crucial advantage in winning an additional $600,000 Aeropress contract.
“I’ve seen a lot of robotics vendors make big promises they can’t deliver,” says Barros. “Rapid is different. The flexibility, intelligence and subscription pricing of the RMO are unlike anything we’ve seen from other robotics vendors. We’re saving money and winning business that we probably wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for Rapid.”