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Opinion: Automation ‘engineer to order’ solution reduces rejects by almost 11 percent for electroplating company

By John Murdoch, Alfacon Solutions

Lloyd Betcher, vice president of operations and services with Kuntz Electroplating (KEI), recently shared that the firm will celebrate 70 years in business next year.

A family owned and operated business since 1948, KEI boasts North America’s largest and most advanced metal finishing operation for original equipment manufacturers of steel and aluminum components.

As the first metal finisher to simultaneously achieve ISO 9002 and ISO 14001 certification, Kuntz set the industry’s benchmark for quality and service. 

Chris Morin, Alfacon Solutions Applications Specialist, explained that KEI was looking to modernize its chrome plating lines; the company plates parts for the automotive industry and runs their Kitchener Ontario facility 24 hours a day.

Recently KEI sought a new engineer-to-order solution.

According to Betcher, “General safety concerns were the first priority… 25 percent of our people worked within ten feet of process tanks that are operating in a temperature range of 185-195 degrees, secondly they worked around four overhead hoists.

“This has all been eliminated by taking the work away from the front of the line where it is hot, and not working around overhead hoists.”

KEI operates in a high cosmetic standard industry, the more handling causes more scuffs, scratches, dings, and dents in the parts that are then rejected.

The company worked with Alfacon Solutions and reduced overall touch points (picking up and putting down by 60 percent, six out of 10).

The final station before going into the plating line was where parts were being racked; if there was a quality concern with parts or lack of parts or quality concerns with the work bar, the whole line would be down using more plating materials and downtime creating more rejects.

The issue was the number of operator touches per part and the inefficient use of the labor force.

Typically, a part was handled, or touched, five times from raw incoming state to completed chromed and outbound.

Additionally, the parts were manually walked from station to station during these touches. These operator touches resulted in scratches and damages that required more operators to strip off the plating and send the parts through again for plating.

The existing overhead conveyor that delivered parts to the plating line area required a substantial investment if it was to be kept running.

KEI reached out to the Daifuku team who had worked with Engineer-to-Order (ETO) experts Alfacon Solutions.

Discussions were held between KEI and Alfacon Solutions resulting in the initial concept to tow a Load Handling Frame (LHF) cart with parts onboard from station to station using a Daifuku SmartCart.

daifuku smartcart

Daifuku SmartCart. Model 300TT AGC

Morin shared that KEI was receptive to the idea and asked that a demo be set up in their facility to have all stakeholders witness. The demo proved the concept and the stability of the LHF cart as it moved around the plant. The decision was to proceed to layout and quote the system.

At that same time KEI was implementing a major construction project on one of their plating lines. The condition of the floors in the 70-year-old plant needed major repairs to successfully run any vehicles.

Prior to the commencement of floor work, Alfacon Solutions conducted a Magnetic Survey of the floor along the proposed path the AGC’s (Automated Guided Carts) would take.

Alfacon Solutions routinely conducts this survey in a prospective plant to ensure that there are no obstructions beneath the floor to interfere with the magnetic guidance system of the AGC’s.

A wireless survey of the area within the plant was conducted to confirm signal strength and the number of access points required. With both the magnetic and wireless surveys completed successfully, KEI decided to proceed with the floor reconditioning and the AGC project.

Lean plant floor design eliminated congestion and improved product flow

Betcher shared that with the new solution, “Now we know we have a problem long before it effects cycle time. The system has really helped us with our previous congestion issues and product flow within the overall work space.”

He noted that Alfacon Solutions made the value proposition best because the price point was right and the flexibility of the system helped with the design of the load handling frame.

The ETO solution was critical in the final analysis because it permitted a combination of off the shelf AGC’s with custom load handling frame design that was the best fit.

The company is still looking at ways to shorten radius, length of vehicle. Having a vehicle to be able to go up and down grades is an on-going process improvement.

Alfacon Solutions confirmed guidance path layout, refined design, and supplied brackets to attach the LHFs to the AGCs. They also supplied guides and stops for 1/2″ accuracy of loads entering/dropping-off/picking-up and leaving the plating line.

The company installed a wireless network, a magnetic guidance path with location RFID tags and proximity plates, and installed the Daifuku System Automation Manager (SAM) computer server with hot backup.

The AGC’s towing LHF started delivering racks of raw un-plated parts to the plating line. The raw parts are now automatically picked up off the LHF by overhead crane and placed into the plating line tanks.

The AGC’s then move to the exit side of the plating line and an overhead crane loads plated parts to the LHF. The AGC then tows the LHF with plated parts to a packaging station.

Operators load raw parts to the LHF at the start of the AGC loop and remove plated parts at the packing station near the end of the AGC loop. There is also an opportunity charge station, with AGC vehicle charge lasting 100 seconds, along the loop.

Total operator touches per part are now just two. And there is no manual walking of parts. The AGC with LHF accomplishes all part movement. KEI anticipated the labor savings the system would provide. Rather than conducting layoffs of trained operators acquainted with the KEI culture, these operators were reassigned to other lines within the KEI facility.

The AGC line continues to run 24 hours a day. Recently KEI ordered additional AGC’s to expand its fleet to service a second plating line.

The efficiencies achieved at KEI

There were many metrics regarding efficiencies or process improvement that can be referenced (cost saving, labor savings, other data points).

Betcher reported, “We have relocated labor to a more value-added area, handling related rejects have been reduced by 10.9 percent in three categories before plate, after plate, and gross handling.”

About the Author: John Murdoch is CEO of Alfacon Solutions, based in Canada. Murdoch is a thought-leader in both the manufacturing and materials handling sectors. Leveraging more than a quarter century of experience, Murdoch brings a unique perspective to engineered material handling solutions and the role of automation. Murdoch can be reached at