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U.S. molder sees Baxter robots as way to compete against China

By Bill Bregar | PLASTICS NEWS

A small custom injection molding factory in the United States says its use of Baxter collaborative robots helps it stay competitive against China.
Vanguard Plastics Corp., with 42 employees and 21 injection molding machines, uses three of the "human-faced" Baxters on its production floor, and has a fourth set aside for employee training.
Plastics News recently visited the plant, which has attracted interest from TV news crews from Japan, Germany and Sweden and the American business news channel CNBC, all curious to see how the cobots handle themselves in the factory.
President Chris Budnick said the slow-moving Baxters, which are designed to safely work right alongside people, have helped improve productivity at the molder, which has about $7 million (47.5 million Chinese yuan) in annual sales.
"A factory our size in China would have over 100 people. That's the bottom line. That's how we can compete," he said.
"We have less people, or if you want to look at it another way, we're twice as productive. And we're profitable and we're not moving to Mexico or threatening to move to Mexico. We're staying in New England," he said.
The company is based in Southington, in the state of Connecticut.
Baxter robots have an expressive computer-screen "face," making the two-armed robots from Rethink Robotics Inc. familiar even to non-technical people. The robots are collaborative, meaning they can work side-by-side with an employee and do not need safety guarding.
Baxter robots can handle a payload up to 5 pounds, and they move in a deliberate fashion. They are no match for the speedy Wittmann robots zipping back and forth over the presses at Vanguard's molding factory.
Instead, they perform tasks like handling a steering column assembly -- two molded parts that are first put together by an employee. The Baxter robot moves the parts past a vision inspection system where three cameras check 13 different quality aspects on the automotive part.
Boston-based Rethink Robotics launched the Baxter robot in 2012. The following year, Vanguard became one of the first injection molding companies to buy one. Budnick said the second and third Baxters came after that, a year apart.
Vanguard bought the fourth one earlier this year. During a plant visit, the wheeled robot sat off to the side, unplugged, waiting to be used for training.
Baxter is priced in the range of $25,000 (170,000 Chinese yuan), so they are not a huge investment to try out, Budnick said.
One of the company's Baxters methodically stacked single-use medicine cups and dropped them into a bagging machine.
"We're selling product at 1990s price structures, because that's what we have to do, or the ax comes down and the jobs go to Mexico or China. I mean, that's just the bottom line," Budnick said. "So do you like to do that? No. But you have to figure out ways to do that ... And I don't care what anybody tells you about loyalty, and vendor blah-blah-blah. And partnerships."
"It's all nonsense. It really ends up about the price," he said. "So if we can't have a competitive price, they'll go find another place on the planet to do it. Regardless of what issues they might have logistically or quality issues."
Budnick said his father, Lawrence Budnick Jr., who founded Vanguard Plastics in 1972 with a single injection press and remains active as chairman and CEO, has always been open to trying new things and tweaking operations.
Company officials have been charting productivity growth since the early 1990s and work to improve it every year, he said.
The Budnicks have taken a two-pronged approach to face the future. Automation helps. And now the custom molder has its own product lines, after buying two companies in 2014 making floral supplies and food service products.
"We have our own proprietary products, so we climb up the value chain," Chris Budnick said. Vanguard is investing in both businesses to refresh their products.

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