Saint-Gobain’s plant in Sully-sur-Loire, France, focuses on glass production for the military and aeronautical industries, as well as civilian markets. It was founded in 1665 under King Louis XIV’s reign. Now a global company, it employs more than 185,000 people worldwide.
Near its original headquarters in the outskirts of Paris, human labor provides high-value work to the finished product, but some tasks are more tedious than others. This is why the Sully-sur-Loire factory, like many other Saint-Gobain plants, began to deploy collaborative robot cells into their process.
Saint-Gobain has a two-step process to finish its products. The first step is polishing, which was done manually with an orbital polisher. Then there is the surface preparation of the glass. Freeing employees from these grueling tasks begins with finding a technology that would do the job on their behalf.
Saint-Gobain’s digital manufacturing manager, Ignacio Sanchez, had to find a solution for a difficult glass polishing process. The operation is painful, frequently causing musculoskeletal disorders for workers.
“The operator had to polish all of the glass surface, repeating the same movement on and on,” Sanchez explained. “He then does the surface preparation of the glass before it becomes one of many layers of an armoured glass. This second step is a lot easier. We wanted an automated solution for the polishing part of the process.”
Saint-Gobain turned to local automation specialist HMI-MBS for help. “Saint-Gobain’s application had a very important diversity of reference points,” said HMI-MBS commercial director Nicolas Bouhet. “There was also a problem of production space, since the cell had to be deployed in a small area in order to work in collaboration with the operators.”
Due to the small space and safety requirements, a Universal Robots UR10 collaborative robot arm was selected. HMI-MBS performed many tests at its lab, but the first proof of concept did not deliver viable options.
“We ended up in a dead end,” recalled Bouhet. “Then we had the idea to use Robotiq’s FT 300 force torque sensor with the path recording function. We managed to integrate it into the robot and continued with tests at our offices. We then moved to Saint-Gobain and worked with the operator to see if the product met Saint-Gobain’s expectations.”
Case Study at a Glance
|Location: Sully-sur-Loire, France|
|Challenges: Workforce injuries; productivity|
|Force Torque Sensor: Robotiq FT 300|
|Cobot: Universal Robots UR10|
|Task: Polishing glass|
|Value Drivers: Path recording, collaborative|
|Results: Lowered injuries; increased production 30%|
|ROI: < 1 year|
The human operator can move the robot and manually make movements he or she wants the robot to perform. With the FT 300 force torque sensor, the robot then records and reproduces the operator’s motions.
Testing at HMI-MBS helped minimize the time needed to implement the robot into production. When everything was ready, the UR10 and FT 300 combo took part of the work over from the operator, and both started working together.
“Without the FT 300, this operation would have been quite complex since the programming of a robot movement that must follow a volume in space is a complicated thing to do,” added Bouhet. “With the path recording function of the FT 300, the operator can grab the device and make the movement; the Universal Robots UR10 then records and reproduces the operator’s motion.”
For Christophe Legeay, methods technician at Saint-Gobain Sully-sur-Loire, automating the polishing process of each layer of armoured glass gave relief to operators who were previously assigned to this task. “It allowed them to no longer experience vibrations in their shoulders or perform repetitive movements. The installation of the robot was more than welcome,” he explained.
Now all the operator has to do in the polishing process is program the proper path for the product and set the glass for polishing. “The robot asks us to place reference marks to check the positioning,” said Sanchez. “You cannot run your application until you have validated your positions. As soon as the validation is done, you press start and the robot starts running.”
While polishing is in progress, the operator simultaneously washes the glass that was previously polished. Then it’s time for surface preparation, a process in which human labor brings much more value into the product.
“We assigned the robot to the hardest part of the polishing process,” said Sanchez. “During this time, the operator can focus on surface preparation. We’re able to produce the same amount of work in two 8-hour shifts instead of three, before the robot arrived. We’ve achieved ROI in less than a year.”
The company increased its capacity by 30% and was able to deliver orders on top of those initially scheduled.
“A product might come back once every one or two years. We often have to create a new program,” said Sanchez. “By empowering the operator, allowing him to do the program himself, we avoid calling an integrator every time a product comes back into production. This is one of the goals of our digital manufacturing project, in which cobots will play a huge role.”
In a factory where human labor delivering high-end quality has been a tradition over the last 350 years, robots are now a helping hand for human workers aiming for perfection.
“We do not cut jobs like it’s often perceived when a robot is installed somewhere,” said Sanchez. “It’s a collaboration between man and machine that allows us to remove grueling tasks from the hands of operators. This is the goal and it’s fairly well perceived here.”