Following the successful implementation of a small fleet of collaborative robots in the Workshop at the North Pole, employees have spent the past year adopting more advanced technologies, discovered at IMTS, to streamline toy design and production. New exoskeletons, automation vision systems, and digital twins are helping the workshop further improve throughput, lower costs, and tighten timelines for new product development. “The addition of the cobots really improved productivity and employee retention last holiday season, so I was eager to find new technologies that would make the workshop even busier and more jolly than ever before,” says the owner and operator of the global toy manufacturer and distributor at the North Pole.ExoskeletonsWorkshop employees have a long tradition of making a wide variety of toys for all good girls and boys. However, as aging employees are retiring later, they want to ensure better comfort and productivity by outfitting themselves with robotic exoskeletons that enhance their strength, endurance, and overall holiday spirit.Exoskeletons were first tested on the bicycle production line due to the larger, bulkier parts. Employees reported less fatigue at the end of the shift, more energy throughout the day, and higher job satisfaction. Since then, five other production lines have adopted exoskeletons for line workers. Jobs that once took two or three employees to do can now be completed with a single employee wearing an exoskeleton.“Our employees like to go home without muscle aches and fatigue at the end of a shift,” says Jingles, production supervisor the North Pole Workshop. “It makes the cookies and hot cocoa taste that much better at the end of the day, and they look forward to coming back to work in the morning.”Employees building larger toys and frequently working overhead are wearing Hilti Exoskeletons to enhance shoulder extension and strength. Those performing repetitive jobs like painting and lifting heavier objects are using Comau MATE Exoskeletons to reduce overall muscle strain.Vision SystemsAdding further capabilities to its fleet of FANUC robots, the Workshop has installed OnRobot 2.5D vision systems to help automate metrology and quality control efforts. Employees spend less time checking other workers’ toys and more time making their own.“The vision systems help us produce more accurate parts and tighter tolerances, which is especially important in our electronic toys,” says Hermey, vice president of the electronic assembly division at the workshop. Having previous experience in train assembly, Hermey knows first-hand the importance of accuracy to keep production lines running smoothly. “Whether it’s used to check a train track or a circuit board, automated robot vision has cut our defective parts by 25%, and that gets us to meet our deadlines without adding shifts or overtime. That makes everyone happy,” he says.To check for glossy paint defects on metal toys, the workshop uses Renishaw non-contact vision probes. If a defect is detected, the robotic arm will automatically polish and buff to get the finish perfectly smooth within sub-microns, which is better than what even the best finishing staffer can accomplish.Digital TwinAlthough the production line is the best-known area in the workshop, the engineering team is essential to bringing new toys to life. The hottest new toys start as ideas in employee brains and become designs and then prototypes before going to production.The developers use HEIDENHAIN Digital Twin technology to create realistic simulations before finalizing new product designs. By testing actual kinetics, parameters and functions during design, the addition of digital twin has allowed staff to debug problems and reduce the time and waste of prototyping.“I wish we’d had digital twin technology decades ago when we worked on the first Tickle Me Elmo,” says Snowball, lead product design engineer. “We spent months refining the electronics and motion on that toy before we got it right. We went through so much red fur and wiring on that project! If we had hair, we would have been pulling it out during that ordeal.”After establishing a design, the engineers pair the digital twin with virtual reality headsets so young employees can test the playability and fun factor of each new toy before it goes into production.The Smart WorkshopFollowing in the footsteps of other manufacturers using advanced technology, the workshop plans to keep investing in new automation and other solutions that keep the workshop running smoothly. His next step is implementing more system connectivity to establish a true “smart workshop.”“I’m looking forward to attending IMTS 2024 with the engineering team this year because we know the latest IIoT tech will be there,” says the owner and operator of the global toy manufacturer and distributor at the North Pole. “We have millions of children counting on us every year, and advanced technology is helping us keep our promises to those on the good list.” Workshop staff advise all manufacturers to register for IMTS 2024 at IMTS.com/Register.
The Workshop at the North Pole has all the same challenges as any manufacturer, employing several advanced manufacturing technologies such as exoskeletons, vision systems, and digital twins to make sure toys are delivered on time.