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Collaborative Mobile Robot Offers Fast ROI to Help Argon Medical Compete in High-Cost Labor Market

The MiR200 robot’s high payload capabilities, ease-of-use, and cleanroom compliance smooth production flow for surgical instrument manufacturer Argon Medical Devices. The robot allows skilled workers to stay gowned for cleanroom work, saving the equivalent of one full headcount from material transportation tasks.

Argon Medical Devices makes specialty surgical needles and catheters in its manufacturing facility in Wheeling, IL, just outside of Chicago. The company has turned to collaborative automation to help it compete in this high-cost labor market, while preserving jobs for its skilled, long-term employees. Material handling was an obvious target for cost savings, explains Argon Senior Engineering Manager Kevin Hess, who turned to Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR). “The MiR robot fit perfectly with our automation plans. We’re now able to take additional, non-value-added operations out of our facility, and it was easy to deploy.”

Robot’s ease-of-use addresses cleanroom complexity and improves productivity

Two-thirds of Argon’s 85,000 square-foot plant is composed of ISO Class 8 cleanrooms where surgical instruments are manufactured and packaged. Cleanroom employees are required to wear gowns, hair nets, and safety goggles, and remove them any time they’re outside of the cleanroom transfer area. But gowning and ungowning wasted valuable time when employees needed to pick up and deliver material to the warehouse multiple times during the day.

As a result, material was left in large stacks in the transfer area, waiting for one of four batched warehouse pick-up times per shift. That batched approach caused inefficiencies in production flow, and didn’t solve the issue of manufacturing employees lining up at the warehouse to pick up needed materials and interrupting warehouse processes.

“Now, it’s on demand,” explains Hess, noting that within a week of deploying the robot, employees were comfortably using tablets to access the robot’s intuitive interface and send it on missions. “If the molding department gets done with some product that they need to send to the warehouse, they’ll call up the robot right away, load it up, and send it back to the warehouse. We don’t have any queueing or any batch processing, which has been a huge benefit for our material movement and our throughput at the facility.”

Raw materials also stacked up in the warehouse, with large containers from multiple departments in a central location, which department leads had to spend time to sort through to find specific job orders. With the MiR200 robot, Argon Warehouse Supervisor Jim Miller says that “productivity has improved dramatically” by allowing the warehouse to stage materials, load the robot with material for multiple departments, and send it on missions to deliver the material. That allows warehouse employees to continue staging material efficiently and production employees to continue operating at their stations.

“The time that it took to do it previously, prior to the robot, is really non-existent now because we’re order-specific to department necessities,” says Miller. “It’s really streamlined what we’re trying to achieve.”

MiR200 easily handles up to 400-pound payload

When evaluating the MiR robot, Hess was impressed by the features that MiR offers, especially its ease of deployment that doesn’t require the expensive and disruptive installation of lines or sensors in the facility floor that other material transport robots require. He looked at both the MiR100 and MiR200, and says, “Both are the same footprint, same size, same interfaces, but when I looked at the fixturing we were going to require and the weight of the product that we were going to be moving, the MiR200 was an easy choice for us.”

Even with that heavy payload, Argon staff has been impressed by the robot’s stability and safety. Miller says, “The largest totes that we use here in the facility are designed to hold anywhere from 45 to 55 pounds each. When we put eight totes on [the robot] you’re pushing 350-400 pounds without any concerns of safety once it leaves your visibility.”

Easy programming puts robot in production in days

As soon as the MiR200 arrived at the Argon facility, Hess connected to it with his phone through the robot’s intuitive web interface and was able to drive the robot around the office right away. While the robot can use an imported CAD layout of the facility, simply walking it through the plant was an easy option. Argon Engineer Chuck Grossman explains, “When it came time to map the facility, it was as simple as hooking [the robot] up through the Wi-Fi in the building and then using the tablet’s touchscreen to manually walk it throughout the building. Using its sensors, it finds the location of every wall, every door, and everything else that happens to be in the room. Then it was just a matter of going back and putting in the way points where the robot was going to go.”

Grossman found that adding to the map and adding way points or missions is just as simple, and takes just a few minutes. He adds, “My initial expectations were that it was going to be kind of complicated and hard to figure out the software and how I was going to integrate it into the building, and what I’ve found is it’s just the opposite. It was so easy that I’m able to create new missions very rapidly and easily.”

Employees quickly gain confidence in MiR200’s safety and use

Within a week of delivery, the new robot was deployed on the production floor, running missions between the cleanrooms and the warehouse. Argon set up different permission levels for access to the robot’s software, and employees quickly became comfortable using tablets in each area to choose missions for the robot with the easy-to-use interface. And while there was some hesitancy in the part of employees at the beginning, Hess laughs as he describes employees playing “chicken” with the robot by moving in front of it to see it maneuver safely around them. Hess says, “Now they walk alongside the robot as if it’s another employee walking the floor. It’s just another part of our family here in the Wheeling facility.”

Robot replaces headcount and gives ROI in just one year

Hess’s objective for the MiR robot was to take costs out of the company’s processes and make work more efficient for operators and warehouse staff. The company has now been able to redeploy personnel who were using their time moving product back and forth and who now have time freed up for more valuable activities. “That time equated to almost a full body,” Hess says, “so the return on investment for us was about one year, just on taking that one head and redistributing that throughout the facility. Along with that it comes with some of the benefits for our employees as well, that they’re not having to make that long walk back and forth from the warehouse time after time after time.”

Hess also notes that loading and unloading the arm-level rack on the robot is easier on employees than the previous requirement to lift heavy containers from floor level.

Future plans include robot expansion

Just a few months after installing his first MiR200 robot, Hess is already looking at additional opportunities in the Wheeling facility for a second robot and using the MiRFleet fleet management software for even greater efficiency. “There are a lot of times when the robot’s being called to different departments,” he explains. “If you look at the mission queue, there’s four or five different missions that are waiting, which tells me we probably have a need to get a second one in here so that we can manage the material a little bit better at the facility.”

Hess is also talking to his colleagues at the Argon facility in Athens, Texas, which has a much larger footprint than the Wheeling plant and about 25 warehouse personnel that are responsible for material movement. “I think that we’ve got a lot of opportunity down there to bring these robots into that facility,” he states.