Well conveyors didnt work very well with this product as the small tuff fibers would get into bearings and seize the conveyor in a short time, a new hoist would have the inherent problems with hydraulic systems and would not be very reliable from past experience. So what would be the best solution? Well obviously a robot truck Automatic Guide Vehicles are used in many warehouse applications andf are designed for carrying problem loads. The advantage of the AGV would be that it could also maintain the orientation of the bale out of the box of the baler gaurantying perfect repeatable wrapping everytime and perfect orientation for autoamtic labeling evertime.
So no problem all we had to do was write a capital expenditure request get some money and do it, well there was one problem I was not alowed to use the word robot wiithin 20 miles of my management team!
What did we do differently?
Well this time before I mentioned the R word I meet with the Unions and the operations folks and identified and confirmed the existing problems and issues. We all agreed that we could not accept the current way of working and we needed a better solution. For an almost fully automated plant the last place the operators wanted to interact with the process was the bale handling and labeling area, they had bad memories of John Bull label printing kits and complaints of boredom and human error.
During the discussions we reviewed all the options and reviewed conveyor transportation issues but agreed we would investigate and get quotations for the best available conveyors. After the initial investigation we arranged for sample conveyors to be tested and as in the past the loose fiber founds its way into the works and they didnt work anymore. The union and the operators concerned that we were not keeping up to date with progress demanded that we find other alternatives surely technology has progressed so that we could move a 300kg bale of staple fiber a couple of hundred yards and maintain orientation for wrapping and labeling? So my management demanded we come up with other alternatives.
Well this was the opportunity I had been waiting for to introduce the R word but again recognizing there were cultural issues still outstanding from the first R failure. So this time I worked with the manufacturers to identify all these issues and to demonstrate what other industries were doing about them. So with the aid of a couple of films the team was assembled to review what other folks do. We showed a frozen food warehouse with extreme cold areas were people did not want to work and how AGVs are being used, how they interface and physically participate with people. We showed how full size automatic forklifts were handling difficult products and how reliable and accurate they were. How they could maintain orientation because they followed guided wires burried in the floor. We also presented an estimate of the proposed system which was significantly less than the proposed conveyor system. We also presented how we could maintain the trucks with the engineer visiting the site and working with the existing maintenance group.
It was the Union that recommended that management make a case to justify this work and that they would support the successful implementation of this system as it was the only sound alternative to a major problem that was now a bottleneck to the whole business. Well what could management say, the whole work force was united behind the AGV solution.
The system went in fully computer controlled and worked from day one without any problems. We identified the potential threat of non-plant operated forklift drivers seeing these as a threat and crashing into them so we isolated all non plant personnel by a barrier. The bales were transferred to the manual fork lift drivers through a storage rack which divided the handover area between AGVs and forklifts. It was interesting that the operators took pride in the AGVs from the early days and demonstrated their acceptance by naming them and creating faces on the glass shields of the fork. Each truck had its own personality which the workers identified by watching the way they worked. The final acceptance was expressed in the form of a cartoon were the AGVs were depicted as a team members taking a break and playing dominos, and the plant manager pulling his hair out as he had recently had a campaign to keep people on the job and out of the mess room.
What did this do for progress
There is nothing like a successful project to assure employment and give you the flexibility to introduce more of the same. The robot truck system was fully controlled by a supervisory system which tracked bales and handled grade changes and handover to the warehouse for putting into campaigns for customers delivery. The supervisory control computer was an important part of the system but most people probably did even realize that it existed. The only time people interfaced to the system was so request information about the product and where it was in the plant or to call a truck to do something unusual such as store and retrieve bales with a unique identification during wrapper maintenance or other outages.
What culture lessons were learnt
Most people are not interested in technology only how it impacts their way of life, they are more interested in what they will see and how they deal with problems and failures. Modern industrial plants are using technology in every operation and people are stretched and often not considered partners or co-workers. The AGV system demonstrated how people and equipment could work in harmony and be one team. Preparation for change is important and winning sponsors is extremely important. People do not like to face the unknown they like to see well managed and professionally implemented projects. Having a supervisory system was not important it was the functionality and how people identified and worked with it was all that mattered to them.