Finnish machine tooling shop Ket-Met Oy struggled to stay competitive because staffing costs to operate certain machines harmed its competitiveness. The company was ultimately able to cut those costs with help from collaborative robot arms from Universal Robots A/S.
Ket-Met was founded as Koneosahiomo M.I. Kettunen in the late 1960s and specializes in stainless steel manufacturing. International engineering companies such as Andritz, Sandvik, Wärtsilä, and Wetend Technologies contract with the company for production of small series of up to a few hundred units. The subcontractor, which is based in Savonlinna, Finland, near the Russian border, also has a significant number of customers in eastern Finland.
Ket-Met faced stagnating growth, with revenue around €1.3 million ($1.45 million U.S.). Its board of directors set a revenue goal of 10% growth per year without compromising its 10% net profit target. Challenges included acquiring new customers and growing revenue from current customer relationships, said Tuomas Kalanen, managing director.
“Price competition in the field is quite fierce,” he said. “Our goal has been to reduce our production costs in order to grow our business activities.”
“Part of the reason for the costs has been the low degree of automation of the company’s machinery,” Kalanen explained. Production automation is used only in the newest lathes.
Ket-Met has six Mori Seiki lathes and two vertical spindle machining centers. It also has a 3D coordinate-measuring machine for quality assurance.
Older machines require significantly more manpower than modern equipment, Kelanen observed. An aged lathe and milling machine require a human to move the workpiece on the machine and lift the finished piece off again. This raises production costs.
Another challenge is finding enough employees. “It is difficult to find new motivated workers who want to be CNC machinists in Savonlinna — and almost everywhere in Finland,” said Kalanen. “This is not the favorite occupation of young people.”
Savonlinna is far from major population centers, and like dozens of other municipalities, it is losing young people, who are moving to growth areas. “It is almost impossible to find new CNC machinists here, although we certainly have tried,” Kalanen said.
Ket-Met bought its first UR10 collaborative robot, or cobot, in 2016 to enhance the production of the Mori Seiki automatic lathe. It took two weeks to install and program.
The cobot moves the workpieces on the lathe or milling machine, waits for their completion, and cleans the fasteners and parts with compressed air. It then a transports the finished parts to the washing basket for washing.
In addition to servicing machines, Ket-Met uses cobots to assemble parts and grind burrs.
One cobot freed a machinist to focus on more demanding work for only about half the cost of what an employee’s annual cost is in Finland.
Since then, Kalanen has acquired a UR10 and a UR10e. Kalanen calculated that the return on investment has been approximately a year for each cobot.
Results at Ket-Met
Universal Robots‘ cobots are proving to be a critically important acquisition with regard to the company’s growth strategy.
“With cobots, we have been able to reduce the production unit labor costs by more than 40% in applicable parts,” Kalanan stated. “We are involved in price competition again.”
The company has received new orders from both existing and new customers.
“I believe that with cobots, it is considerably easier for the company to achieve its growth targets,” said Kalanen. “With each cobot, we can produce as much as with one new employee but at a lower cost.”
A traditional industrial robot would not have been the right solution, he said. The costs would have been higher, and the robots would have required new hall facilities with safety guarding. It would have been difficult to integrate them with machines in the existing location.
“The old machines are often slow, and their features are so limited that human resources are wasted if tending to it,” Kelanen claimed. “The latest UR extended the life of our 1990 Hartford milling machine a few more years.”
Employees have not considered the cobots to be a threat to themselves or their jobs. “The programming and use of cobots is easy. Programming a new series takes only about two hours,” said CNC machinist Hanna Kautonen, who is responsible for programming the cobots.
In addition to programming, humans act as quality controllers, ensuring that all sides of the parts are of the desired shape and length. Although cobots are reliable, there are interruptions, mostly caused by wear and tear of the blades used in the machining of stainless steel. But this is not the cobots’ fault, Kautonen said.
“Cobots have facilitated our work,” he said. “We do not have to monitor the process all the time.”
Instead of terminating employees because of the new automation, Ket-Met has been able to shift employees so they can focus on more demanding tasks that require their know-how, such as programming and making settings.
Cobots are slower than their industrial cousins for safety reasons. Humans have time to observe and, if necessary, react to the actions of the machine.
“A human can certainly move a part faster than a cobot,” said Pekka Myller, a CNC machinist. “However, it does not take coffee breaks and continues to work for several hours after we have already gone home.”
According to company tradition, each new machine is named after the name day on the date of introduction. At Ket-Met, cobots are known by the traditional Finnish men’s names of Vihtori, Eetu, and Tatu.
Ket-Met robots do not use machine vision, and Ket-Met employees consider this to be a good target for future development.
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