ABB robot keeps trailer maker competitive

When you introduce robotics into a workplace, an assumption is sometimes made that it will cost jobs. Greg Allison of Drake Trailers believes exactly the opposite.

Allison is general manager of Brisbane-based Drake Trailers, one of Australia’s largest manufacturers of low-loader and specialist large scale trailers. In 2008, Drake installed an ABB robot on an linear track system. And they have never looked back.

“The staff who still weld by hand see that we’re spending money to stay in Australia because it will help us remain competitive,” Allison says. “And it’s challenged them to be as good if not better than the robot in the quality of what they’re doing.”

Not only do we get something quicker; we get it better
“We took the decision that we needed to upskill our existing workforce and add to it – either that or we were going to be swamped by imports,” he says. “We took a long time to consider the best configuration for automating certain aspects of the production, and the ABB robot was easily the best option. It gives us speed, so we can compete on price because our unit costs come down, but it also really improves our quality at the same time. Not only do we get something quicker but we get a better finish and we get repeatability.”

That last factor is a key benefit: thanks to the ABB robot, which went live in May 2009, less handling is required when machining the suspension components, skid plates, ramps and up to 60 items Drake has identified which can be jigged for use with the dual station robot.

“An example is the swing-wing suspension units,” Allison explains. “It used to take us two and a half hours to do a single unit. Now we do two of them at once, with no pre-tacking – they are just clamped into place – and we do 85-90 percent of the welding in 20 minutes.”

One welding station has a single axes ABB L type positioner which has 2000kg payload capacity. The second has a dual axes ABB A type positioner which has 750kg payload capacity, used for welding more complex components. Now consider weld speeds: a quality manual welder can span 250-300mm per minute; the ABB robot manages 750-800 a minute. And finally, there is minimal pause between welds…. no lifting of the mask to check the weld site, or manual shifting of the jig to better tackle the next spot. Each and every consideration provides a faster, cleaner and safer welding environment.

Integration by ABB Preferred Partner
The robot was installed by Machinery Automation & Robotics, Sydney-based integration specialists who have worked closely with ABB for more than seven years. Solutions Engineers Jamie Bailey explains that MAR is one of two ABB Robotics Preferred Partners. “ABB is the market leader,” Bailey says. “Their strength is the supply of industrial robot systems, they have significant variety of reach and payload application specific machines. I’d have to say that whenever there are issues they proactively remedy them.”

Both Allison and Bailey agree that the product support stands ABB apart. “They’re definitely one of the best supported robotic providers in Australia,” Bailey says.
Overall, Allison estimates the robot has increased productivity by 60-70%, “and that’s being conservative. We do two in 20-30 minutes against two by hand in five hours. That’s a terrific saving.”

Staff has more than doubled in the last five years
The relevance of the saving is critical for the family-owned company, which started in 1960 and today turns over $45-50 million per annum. Staff has more than doubled to 140 in the last five years as the focus from tandem and tri-axle trailers has shifted to a range of products north of the 100-tonne capacity mark. Think mine site transporters or steerable, specialised jinker trailers, which go to their largely Australian market for upwards of $350,000. “There’s a huge amount of componentry in those products, therefore a huge amount of manpower required to build them,” Allison says. “We might be slightly more expensive than imported trailers but our re-sale value is consistently 25 percent higher than others, because buyers know we make things the right way.”

Large role in keeping us competitive
While Allison is delighted with the ABB robot, it has challenged both his production and design staff, few of whom fully recognised its potential until it was in operation. Its repeatability has opened their eyes to every stage of the manufacturing process. “The more material we can standardise the more competitive we can be, which is a focus for our drawing and design office,” Allison says. “We’re fine-tuning the standardisation of things so they can be programmed for the robot. Then we could apply the same productivity savings to those components and suddenly what were once options for our clients might become standard. “And that’s how we remain competitive.”

He believes the robot has played a large role in Drake’s offering the same price list as it had in June of 2008. And Drake has enjoyed other benefits, such as less manual handling of heavy components by his welding team and reduced exposure to potentially dangerous process of welding itself.

Plans are being formulated for a second, larger ABB robot on a track to tackle the enormous welding requirements of goosenecks and similar scale equipment. “All we’re doing is taking the hot, sweaty process out of human hands and letting staff do the more creative, useful work,” Allison says.