SOUTHINGTON, CONN. — Vanguard Plastics Corp. in Southington will get one of the two-armed Baxter robots by late May or early June — putting the small custom molder on the map as an early adopter of the brand new technology.
Vanguard President Chris Budnick said the Baxter will grab stacks of small medicine cups off a conveyor, and place them in bags from an automated bagging machine. He said Boston-based Rethink Robotics Inc. had to design a Baxter for that application with more input/output capability — because the robot will have to integrate with other machines, not just stick parts into a box.
Vanguard Plastics' Baxter will work together with the bagging machine, the conveyor, the Wittmann robot and the all-electric Engel e-max injection press, with 110 tons of clamping force. If there's a problem, Baxter will have to change the operations of the work cell, or shut it down — otherwise it could turn into Lucy and Ethel working in the candy factory, parts flying everywhere.
Vanguard has two 110-ton Engels lined up next to each other molding the medicine cups, but at first Baxter will work with only one of the presses.
Baxter has made waves in the manufacturing world, thanks to its potential as a thinking robot with cameras on the end of its arms, a cute expressive face with eyes and eyebrow that react to employees using special sensors, and the low $22,000 price tag. Rethink Robotics says Baxter is very easy to program.
The waves are reaching around the world. An NHK TV news team from Japan came to Vanguard for the story, and also visited two other plastics molders with Baxter robots: Rodon Group LLC and Nypro Inc.
Although Vanguard Plastics is small — with just 30 employees and 23 injection presses, mostly Engels, all equipped with Wittmann robots — Budnick said the molder has a history of adopting automation and new technology.
"We're big fans of technology, and this [buying a Baxter] is a way for us to see where we need to go," he said in an interview at the factory on May 16.
That history began in 1972, when his father, Lawrence Budnick Jr., started the company. Today he is CEO. "We've always been an innovator. That's been his philosophy from day one," Chris Budnick said.
Budnick thinks the plastics molding industry will be a natural market for Baxter, since parts are relatively light and come out on a conveyor at regular intervals.0
And Vanguard, like Rodon and Nypro, are playing a key role in getting a robot born in the laboratory, to function on the factory floor.
In Southington, the Baxter revolution begins in Vanguard Plastics' modest factory building flanked by grape vines and a vegetable garden.
The revolution started at Vanguard by chance. In early 2012, a salesman from Gibson Engineering Co. Inc., an automation firm in Norwood, Mass., stopped by. "She was working on selling conveyors and parts to do end-of-arm tooling and other automation," Budnick said. "She asked me if we would be willing to try to be a beta site for a new form of robot. And we said, of course."
The highly automated company bases its employee bonus, including for management, on productivity gains. "We've been measuring that for 20 years," he said. "And it's all about trying to drive your productivity up every year — year after year."
Gibson was working with a company called Heartland Robotics, since renamed Rethink Robotics.
"So it was a pure accident that they came. I had no idea that they even existed. But we jumped at the opportunity to have them come in, because it was a chance to learn something new," Budnick said.
Lawrence Budnick got involved and made suggestions like getting the early Baxter's arm to reach all the way down into each corner of a box, and making Baxter more robust for manufacturing. Chris Budnick recalled: "So he kind-of ticked off a bunch of things, because he's an engineer. And they took that back and they've been steadily working, based on their own research obviously, and customers like us. They're taking that feedback that they're getting and they're making the product better."
Budnick said some media reports have raised fears that automation will replace people. But people can make decisions on the fly better than robots, he said.
"It will allow people to do more with their minds. Do planning and more higher functions, and less mundane, boring work," he said. And people still have to build and service the robots.
Automation also helps bring work back to the United States. "A company our size in China would have a hundred people. We have 30 because we have a lot of automation, and we invest in different ways to do things."
Budnick said the future is wide open for automation: "You'll see a dramatic improvement in the functionality of Baxter-like robots in the next 10 years. It's going to go crazy."