As the approaching winter solstice shrouded Oslo in gloom and darkness last month, the workers at a GE factory located in the Norwegian capital found their cheer in a bright green robot known affectionately, if not officially, as “Hulk.”
The facility, which belongs to GE Healthcare, makes contrast media — the fluids doctors inject into patients to highlight organs during X-ray and CT scans. But last year a swell in orders set off by an increased demand from global customers was starting to tax the muscles of some workers. “We experienced an increase in injuries and sick leave,” says Fadi Fetyan, lean manufacturing leader at the Oslo factory.
Fetyan says that as each 6.5-pound box of contrast media came off the production line, a worker would lift it, turn sideways, lean over and place it on a pallet for shipping. A worker had to perform that physical operation seven times per minute, or as many as 3,150 times during an 8-hour shift. The repeated twisting and leaning motions caused back, shoulder and neck aches as well as hand and wrist problems.
That’s when Fetyan started thinking about help. As lean leader, he is a key player in making the factory smarter while lowering costs. So he proposed bringing in a collaborative robot — or cobot.
He reached out to FANUC, a Japanese company that specializes in building robots that automate factories, which had just the machine he needed. The robot’s first trip was to GE Healthcare’s Advanced Manufacturing Engineering (AME) lab in Waukesha, Wisconsin. The lab typically tests new automation technologies designed to make machines and factories work more efficiently.
When the cobot arrived, AME architect Gregory Heinz and his team programmed it, tested it and handed it off to Vidar Hansen, a packaging engineer in Oslo. Hanses trained the local operators, commissioned the machine, and integrated it in production.
The cobot can lift, turn and twist all day long without any risk of injury, Feytan says. Nonstop production has already improved efficiency and shipping times. The workers who had been doing the lifting were reassigned to other tasks in the factory. Feytan says that the cobot also paid for itself within seven months.
The workers initially called the machine Hulk or Shrek because of its large size and bright-green color. A naming contest among the staff later came up with the current name: GEbot.
GEbot has been such a hit that Fetyan and his colleagues in Oslo, including union representatives, have identified four additional processes that they hope to replace with cobots by the middle of 2017. “This is a great example of how operating a smarter, more efficient factory and worker health and safety go hand in hand,” Fetyan says.
The GEbot is not the only cobot employed by GE. The company is also using Baxter collaborative robots developed by the Boston company Rethink Robotics.