Robotics 'clean up' productivity by 55 percent

Lauren R. Hartman

January 29, 2014

11 Min Read
Robotics 'clean up' productivity by 55 percent

They say, the squeakiest wheel gets the most grease. JTM Products knows that phrase quite well, as a company that has been manufacturing quality industrial lubricants and axle grease for more that 100 years. Founded in 1890 as the Phoenix Oil Company, JTM produced the axle grease, belt dressings and lubricants that actually helped the Industrial Revolution run smoothly, the company claims.

But JTM is perhaps best known as the remaining piece of the original manufacturer of Murphy Oil Soap, which was sold to Colgate-Palmolive in 1991. Today, JTM is still privately held by the grandsons of the founder, Jeremiah Timothy Murphy, whose initials form the company's name. JTM's business centers around two product lines: Murphy's? tire-mounting and demounting lubricants and Phoenix? pipe-joint lubricants, which are used in the construction of water and sewer lines. The company also manufactures private-label and specialty products.

Recently, president/CEO Dan Schodowski faced a squeaky wheel of a challenge when the company began bulging out of its doors, in need of more space. It had to determine what new material-handling equipment it would need in order to support its growth.

A solution came in the form of a robotic system from FKI Logistex ( that provides JTM with a whopping 55-percent productivity gain, adds flexibility in staffing and production and helps prevent loading injuries. The robotic palletizer uses a Motoman ( articulated arm and a vacuum-type end-effector designed and built by FKI Logistex. The end-effector allows the robot to efficiently handle both pails and shipping cases in as variety of pallet patterns.

NIKE wanted its distribution center in Memphis to improve its productivity and throughput. To do so, the company installed conveyors and sorters from Mathews Conveyor, a member company of FKI Logistex, in its 1.25-million sq-ft facility. Read about it at

JTM's steady performance of up to $10 million in annual sales and an estimated 65-percent market share for its two main product lines give the company the fuel it needs to build upon. Still, Schodowski says, changes in production techniques are inevitable for the 114-year-old company. "We were pretty much pigeonholed into an old building," he says.

"We couldn't expand," he points out. "Within that building, we couldn't add a lot of machinery or equipment. If we wanted to our business to grow, we had to have more space and more production room."

A move to a roomier, new 70,000-sq-ft site in Solon, OH, from the facility in Cleveland opened up the next challenge for the company, which was to meet the material-handling demands of its product lineup. While the line of Murphy's tire-mounting products is packaged primarily in 25- and 40-lb pails, the Phoenix line is available cased in 1-qt and 1-gal containers. Both sets of products are palletized before shipment. The Solon staff was left with a lot of slow and heavy lifting.

"We looked at how we could set up our operations differently," says Schodowski. The layout was fragmented in the old building, which prevented the company from using automated palletizers or other automated equipment. "We were faced with having to keep adding people to manually load the product on the pallets and truck the products elsewhere to have them stretch-wrapped," he says.

When JTM planned a layout at the new Solon facility, it could run both product lines at the same time, Schodowski explains. "Running simultaneously in the old plant was a predicament. To do that, we needed extra staff on hand, even if both lines were not running."

Installing the compact, robotic palletizer in a small footprint, JTM saves valuable floorspace used to store an average of two weeks of inventory supply. Equipped with Motoman's XRC controls, power supply, teach pendant, amplifiers and programming software, the six-axis robotic system is able to handle the output of both product lines, which has freed up space for chemical processing and other packaging equipment. The palletizer's vacuum end-effector works with both pails and shipping cases. "Killing two birds with one stone, we thought if we have an automatic palletizer then we don't need somebody at the end of the line," says Schodowski. "The idea was not to eliminate any jobs, but not add personnel either, when the business started growing."

Researching equipment options with Larry Wilson, JTM's director of operations, Schodowski was convinced that an automated palletizing solution would be most cost-effective. A short list of vendors was quickly narrowed down to FKI Logistex, the only one that could provide an integrated robotic palletizing cell with an articulated arm and vacuum end-effector that could handle both pails and cases. "We could either buy two separate palletizers to handle the cases and handle the pails, or try to find something that could handle both containers," says Schodowski. "When we found FKI Logistex, we immediately looked at its options."

Enclosed in a safety cage, the robotic system cell sits in the center of JTM's new factory floor, flanked on one side by lubricant processing and packaging equipment and by pallets of stacked cases and pails on the other.

We had a choice of either buying two separate palletizers to handle the cases and the pails or we could try to find some type of equipment that could handle both...

In production, after pails of Murphy's tire-lubricant paste are filled and capped, they convey to the palletizing cell. With a whir of motion, the robot's vacuum end-effector rotates to pick up an empty pallet from a pallet-loading station and places it in position at the start of an outfeed pallet conveyor to begin palletizing the pails. In the project's original design, 10 pallets are preloaded onto pallets at the start of a sequence. The robot counts its way down. However, FKI Logistex is currently modifying this so that the palletizer can sense how many pallets have been loaded onto the pallet station. This will allow operators to load any number of pallets at the start of a product run up to 10, providing the flexibility for shorter runs and different pallet sizes without having to manually pull pallets out of the cell.

On the infeed side of the cell, accumulation conveyors from FKI Logistex gather up pails from the conveyors and queue them for palletizing on instruction from the robot's control system. Depending on product size and stacking pattern, the robot's vacuum tool picks up one or three pails at a time by attaching to their tops and then puts them down to form the rows and layers of palletized product. When the pallets are full, they are stretch-wrapped by an automatic system from ITW Mima ( and forklifted to inventory storage. A similar process occurs for cases of Phoenix pipe lubricant. The operator sets the system up at the outset, loads the pallets, and lets the robot pick a pallet to begin stacking. The cases come into the cell from a second infeed line, and the process begins. The robotic system can pick and place three pails at a cycle-time throughput of approximately 10 sec and two cases at about 11 sec/cycle.

JTM says it really appreciates the palletizer's built-in design flexibility. While the company doesn't currently use the system's full capacity to run both lines into the palletizing cell simultaneously, the new robot gives JTM the ability to ramp up production at any time. Beyond allowing JTM to run two lines at once, the palletizing cell handles several stacking patterns and pallet sizes, in addition to managing the different pail and case sizes. The robot stacks the 25-lb tire-mounting lubricant pails on 40 x 48-in. pallets in four layers of 12 pails each.

The system stacks the 40-lb Murphy's pails in two patterns, depending on the pallet size. On 40 x 48-in. pallets, the pattern is three layers of 12 pails each. On 48 x 48-in. pallets, the pattern is three layers of 16 pails each.

For the cases of Phoenix pipe products in quart-size tubs, the robot loads 10 layers of five cases each (12 quarts per case) onto a 40 X 48-in. pallet and for the gallon containers, stacks six cases per layer, six layers tall, onto a 40 x 48-in. pallet (four gallons per case). The case patterns require different placement angles, and the robot is able to pick up two cases at a time, place one down, turn the second case and put it down. Since the robot was installed, FKI Logistex helped add a sixth stacking pattern format.

The robotic cell uses a sophisticated control system that minimizes the amount of operator interface required," explains Tom Simone, engineering manager, robotic products, at FKI Logistex Manufacturing Systems North America. "To design this robotic cell, we looked at the sizes of the pails and cases that would be handled. Since each product has its own pallet-build pattern and production rate, we had to determine how much of each product we had to pick at a time, and then go about building the [packing] patterns."

The vacuum end-effector is especially applicable to JTM's pails and cases, FKI Logistex says, which is why it was favored over a mechanical end-effector or other device, Simone says. "Because the system must pick up different container configurations and different quantities and because the patterns required us to release product in a few variations, the vacuum effector was the right tool," he says. "We also chose the vacuum because it can pick up both types of product [containers] from the top, which was the most effective and efficient method."

Without a robot, we had to add two people to reach the volume at which we're palletizing now.

JTM's new robotic palletizing system is living up to Schodowski and Wilson's expectations. So far, JTM uses the system at up to 70 percent of capacity, leaving the remainder for continued growth, Wilson says he estimates that the cell now handles 75 percent of JTM's annual business volume. "Much of our output is dictated by the fillers, so we have more palletizing capacity than we can use right now," he says.

That capacity translates into an impressive performance of nearly 3,000 pails total each day, or more than 200,000 pails and 150,000 cases a year, with 75 percent of the pails being the 25-lb size and 75 percent of the cases holding 1-qt containers. In a typical day of palletizing, Wilson says the cell handles either 60 pallets of 25-lb pails, 20 pallets of 40-lb pails, 40 pallets of case-packed quarts or 25 pallets of the case-packed gallons.

Currently, the JTM factory in Solon runs one seven-hour shift, five days a week, with a crew of eight, but doesn't palletize every day, Wilson says. On large-volume days, the robot palletizes as many as 70 pallets of the 25-lb pails. An average day at the new plant sees about 3000 pails palletized, compared with the 1,800 pails that could be stacked by hand at the previous plant.

The upgrade has generated a 55-percent productivity gain that has greased JTM's sales bearings with moderate growth since the robot was installed. The robot's addition to capacity has also freed the crew to work on other tasks in the factory. "In the old facility without a robot, we had to add two people to get up to the volume at which we're palletizing now," Wilson points out. Beyond adding capacity, the decision to install a robot was due in large part to the founding family's values and to safety and ergonomic issues. With the robot, some of the crew's most labor-intensive work has been eliminated. "It was the right thing to do," says Wilson. "Ergonomics also factored into our decision," he adds. "We used to have people picking up 1,800 or 1,900 pails a day—that's a long day. We thought there was a pretty good payback on the project, but we can also be saving someone's back. When you factor in those costs, the payback is definitely worth it. The payback could be as little as four years."

Rated for a lifespan of up to 20 years, the robotic palletizer has performed reliably since it was installed. JTM, which retains its equipment for a long time, expects its new robot to be a dependable part of its operation for many years. "If you walk around on the shop floor, we have one particular machine I think the Flintstones are still running," jokes Schodowski. "If we maintain the equipment, we expect it to last as long as we need it."

Wilson, the project's chief architect along with Schodowski, says the system has met and exceeded all of the company's goals. "FKI Logistex goes the whole nine yards," he says. For the dedicated group at JTM, that tradition looks like a winning formula for another 114 years of success.

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