UNIVERSAL ROBOTS WAVE THE FLAG FOR AUTOMATION AT B-LOONY
The recent winner of a Gold Edition cobot (collaborative robot) from Universal Robots, Chesham-based B-Loony Ltd, says the new addition will join six existing UR3 cobots on site, all of which are being used to increase productivity in previously laborious manual tasks and help the company gain vital market share. Every UR3 cobot on site has been supplied by RARUK Automation.
B-Loony Ltd has built its business as a leading printer of promotional latex and foil balloons for major retailers, businesses, agencies, charities and countless other market sectors across the UK and Europe. In recent years, the company has achieved significant growth by expanding into additional markets particularly restaurants, bars, catering & food services. Today, B-Loony is a £7 million turnover, 65-employee business.
The company prides itself on quality and compliance. B-Loony is ISO9001 accredited, and is subject to regular audits by major retailers and other customers for whom the very highest standards are paramount.
Further emphasising the quality ethos, B-Loony has also recently achieved FSSC 22000 certification for its food-safe gourmet food flag manufacturing process. In fact, the small flags inserted into restaurant foods such as burgers and roast chicken, have proved a roaring success in recent years. They are also used in back-kitchen environments to identity foods that contain nuts or other potential allergens.
In 2014, the company received its first enquiry for 250 food flags. This was followed by an order for 500, then 1000, then 5000, then 10,000. As a relatively intricate manual assembly operation, logic pointed towards automation as the way forward.
“The problem we faced with finding an automated solution, was precision,” explains James Clephan, Operations Director at B-Loony. “The flag’s skewer has to be placed on the exact centre of the adhesive flag, so that when it folds over the edges align neatly.”
Mr Clephan duly visited the PPMA (Processing and Packaging Machinery Association) exhibition that year and spotted RARUK Automation demonstrating a UR cobot on its stand. The UR3 was busy picking up small dowels from a bowl feeder, and Mr Clephan immediately saw the potential for his own application.
Such has been the success of this automated set-up that B-Loony has gained significant market share and can now produce a staggering 400,000 food flags a week, which equates to around 20 million a year, and with demand rising, further capacity through automation is planned. Four UR3 cobots from RARUK Automation now serve this area of the business on a 24-hour shift pattern.
“RARUK Automation have been great from the outset,” says Mr Clephan. “As this was our first foray into robotics, they initially lent us a UR3 so that we could gain confidence from the unit and see that it worked in the way we wanted. This proved to be an invaluable experience.”
Mr Clephan is keen to point out that his strategy of automating tasks which were previously performed manually, is not to reduce headcount, but to gain market share.
“The collaborative aspect of the UR3 cobots is pertinent in this respect,” he says. “Any workers who have had their jobs replaced by a cobot today work alongside the units. They have been upskilled and now manage the automation function of the operation. Some were naturally sceptical at first, but now they’ve seen it for themselves, our workforce has bought into the idea.”
B-Loony has continued to invest in UR3 cobots, since adding a further two units for a different purpose: bunting production. “With the recent royal wedding and World cup, bunting is in vogue again and we have witnessed a huge surge in demand,” says Mr Clephan. “Our sewing machines were manually fed, we now have two UR3 cobots performing this task with more to follow. The Golden Edition cobot, which we were fortunate enough to win recently, will also go into this business area as part of the automation program”
Universal Robots earlier this year announced that it would celebrate its 25,000th cobot sale by giving away a Gold Edition unit, shipped free of cost, to one lucky customer. However, due to a huge response and interest from customers all around the world, Universal Robots decided to offer a Gold Edition cobot to a customer in each of its geographical areas worldwide. In Northern Europe, B-Loony was the lucky winner.
“The Golden Edition UR3 will soon be put to work alongside our existing robots, helping us to grow market share by producing two million metres of promotional bunting each year,” says Mr Clephan.
B-Loony is the perfect example of how SME manufacturers can realise the benefits of flexible automation. Adopting cobots has enabled the business to continue manufacturing in the UK, and remain highly responsive to customer demands for personalised products, all while growing its market share.
“The cobots have been very reliable from the outset,” says Mr Clephan. “Sometimes we have a programming query, but the support network at RARUK Automation is very good. We will almost certainly be adding more UR3s moving forward. I have to say that we’ve found the payback period to be very short, especially over three shifts. In fact, we have achieved ROI in just four months before now.”