The idea was to train a robot to hold a hot air gun and effectively shrink the bale by blowing hot air in a motion similar to spraying a car. I had witnessed robots performing this activity very effectively in the automobile industry. The first step was to develop a gun suitable for this activity and a local company soon came up with an effective prototype which we could use with the robot. By chance another part of the company had been trying to use robots in the manufacturing of explosives and after an unfortunate accident the explosive was re-classified and no electrical equipment was allowed during the manufacture of the product. This allowed me to acquire the perfect robot for my application and one that had already been paid for by my company. With little negotiating the robot was transferred from Scotland to England and was on its way to save the company a lot of money and produce a better package for our customers. What could go wrong?
The robot arrived in bits but with the aid of some untrained personnel and in true engineering tradition we figured out how to re-assemble it. The basic computer was connected and after a little experimentation programming the robot in assembly language was a breeze and the robot responded to my every request. The sight of such new and exciting technology set the political wheels in motion. The craftsmen who would have to maintain it saw it as a large threat, the operators who were to interface with it could not make their minds up and senior management needed to be convinced. So my boss decided that we should gather all the interested parties together and show a demo of the capabilities of this new technology.
What can you do in 48 hours with no real equipment and no time to do a correct installation? We came up with the idea if we could put a box in front of the robot and write the name of a the senior executive who would be present we would have demonstrated the flexibility and precision of the equipment. Again programming was easy and soon we had a working demo, now we had confidence that we could win everyone over to this new idea and effectively use this technology. At the end of the demo I would give a short presentation on the real application and the benefits and savings.
On the day of the demo one of the mechanical craftsmen noticed a small hydraulic oil leak and without questioning he recognized that this required his skills to just go ahead and fix it as he would do with many other pieces of plant equipment. However, the very small leak was not going to be fixed by a couple of turns of his wrench so he took the pipe off and went to find new olives to seal the connection. He was not aware that the pipe was special, was designed for very high oil pressure and that the pipe must be installed the correct way round. A simple oversight? As the audience assembled after a few brief words the demo was started and to my horror the robot went crazy and instead of writing the executives name on the carton it used the felt pen as a weapon and destroyed the carton with several lethal blows, after this it with one simple blow knocked the 3 foot square carton towards the amazed audience then drove the pen into the ground as if it had a bayonet into a dummy until all resemblance of the pen was totally gone. By which time I was able to make a safe path to the emergency button on the console. Without any discussion I was told to get rid of it and never discuss the word robot to anyone ever again.
Configuration management as root cause
This was a large set back for technology and this Engineer learnt never to do anything by half measures. Every piece of equipment introduced should have the protection of competent people working on it, professional installation and clear operating procedures and management of change control. If we had the system identified as a plant asset and it had been put on the maintenance system the craftsman would not have worked on the robot without a work-order and a permit. The work would have been reviewed and the correct replacement parts would have been identified from the manufacturers recommendations. The incident was one failure but as we looked back over the history of what went on the craftsman was also in a dangerous situation during his maintenance activity as he was not aware of the high pressures, the system had not be isolated correctly and could have seriously injured him. The only isolation was that the computer program was not running and traditional electrical and hydraulic isolation which was not done would probably not have been sufficient based on the capability of this beast.
Why did this one event temporarily stop progress?
This one incident had a wide impact across the whole workforce. Peoples fears and beliefs were biased on the one incident and every robot became a bad thing despite success in other parts of the company. People wanted to believe that the technology was unnecessary and dangerous and the old way of doing things was the best. After all it had been that way for hundreds of years why change?
Lesson: Attention to Cultural issues
The demo was the wrong thing to do, I thought people wanted to see how impressive the technology was but they really didnt care how good it was, or how flexible and easy to program it was. They were only interested in the impact on jobs, the change in responsibilities and training required to be competent on this equipment, would the existing people be capable of supporting and maintaining the equipment. I truly believe that this was the right solution, it could have saved large amounts of money and been very efficient and produced a better product.
The ICI Robot AGV Story
Well after the success of the first robot and many job security threats after such an expensive failure as the money for the robot was transferred onto my divisions books and as far as I know the robot is under a wraps somewhere in the company and was never used. Well the same plant was having difficulties transferring the same bales of fiber from the baling machines to the wrapper and to two different storage locations. The existing transportation was via computerized hydraulic hoist. The hydraulics were shot and the leaking oil contaminated the fiber but more importantly the hoist dropped the bales on the floor and a physical operator would have to drive the hoist in manual control and pick the bales of the floor and transport them to the wrapper, unfortunately the unique identification of the bale had been lost and the automatic labeling system would get out of step and put the wrong label on the wrong bale, which often would cause a major customer relations problem and contamination of whole batches of clothes which would result in customer compensation for hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation.