Human Resources, Manufacturing, and Technology

The future has arrived at Whirlpool

Company invests in robotic technology to cut costs, enhance safety.

October 21, 2016
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In “Industries of the Future,” Alec Ross, the book’s author and keynote speaker at the West Michigan Policy Forum that was held in Grand Rapids in September, predicts robots soon will take over factory floors across the globe.

Ross said recent innovations in robotic technology are leading to safer and more agile robots that will be able to perform factory tasks beyond basic repetition.

He said Taiwanese company FoxConn, a contract electronics manufacturer that produces products for many well-known electronics and technology companies around the globe, recently replaced 60,000 workers in its Chinese factories with robots, which he said is an indication of what’s to come in manufacturing.

James Keppler, Whirlpool Corp.’s vice president of integrated supply chain and quality and a National Association of Manufacturers board member, said he doesn’t see Whirlpool being entirely taken over by robots, but the company is investing in new robotics technology and other technological advancements that can cut costs, improve quality and enhance safety.

“I don’t think any time soon we are going to see our entire facility taken over by robots,” Keppler said. “There is still a great deal of craftsmanship that goes into our products that require some level of human intervention. I don’t see that going away any time soon.

“At Whirlpool, as part of our manufacturing 2020 strategy, we certainly think that smart automation, more advanced test systems that move us from more of a reactive position to predictive, real time shop floor visibility and more advanced analytics, so we can prevent equipment failures before they happen, (are important). I think those types of things are very much in our near future, and we are already working on those today.”

Keppler said Whirlpool has spent the “better part” of the past year benchmarking around Industry 4.0, and he believes a lot of other U.S. manufacturers are doing the same.

Keppler said rather than an influx of robots, his expectation is automation will increase substantially at Whirlpool in the near future.

“There are two primary areas we are looking at,” he said. “One is material delivery — our raw material, our component delivery to our assembly lines. One of our facilities has over 50 automated guided vehicles doing that without the assistance of employees.”

He said automated vehicles are great from a productivity standpoint and are helping Whirlpool achieve its safety vision of getting forklifts and powered industrial vehicles out of areas where a lot of employees are working.

“We are also playing with collaborative automation,” Keppler said. “These are the robots that can work side-by-side with our operators without the heavy cages around them.”

He said Whirlpool has several collaborative automation applications in its U.S. manufacturing plants currently.

“We are looking for an application that can offer more than just labor savings,” he said. “We are looking for ergonomic benefits, maybe a situation where we have a higher risk of ergonomic types of injuries, and we’ve been able to alleviate that with automation. In some cases, we’ve seen a quality and material savings. We are looking for those areas where there are multiple benefits we can achieve.”

Keppler said Whirlpool also is focused on advances in big data analytics.

“We’ve been working on a project with IBM, and we’ve been looking at our manufacturing process,” he said.

He said the project involves identifying critical process parameters, capturing data and then marrying that data with actual test data.

“We take that online testing data married with critical process parameters and with field data, and we are able to put it together and build a predictive model,” Keppler said. “As that product is moving down that assembly line, we can predict and identify ‘this product could be at a higher risk of failure.’

“We can pull those into a separate test loop and can do more diagnostics to correct issues before the product leaves the factory. Ultimately, we are trying to avoid any field failures whatsoever by doing this.”

Keppler said Whirlpool already is seeing some “fantastic results.”

“If it works well, I would see this expanding to other facilities,” he said.

Keppler emphasized that despite all the technology advancements taking place at Whirlpool’s factories, the company still is in need of human talent, even as the size of its workforce remains mostly flat.

“There probably isn’t a U.S. manufacturer that doesn’t have an issue with skilled labor, especially due to the improvement of the economy and the unemployment drop. That is an issue we are all facing,” he said.

Keppler said in the United States, Whirlpool has about 15,000 manufacturing employees.

He noted Whirlpool recently has expanded two of its Ohio facilities by adding jobs, but he said its U.S. workforce likely will remain consistent.

Keppler said Whirlpool is embracing a new strategy to build its skilled labor talent pool — recruiting from within the company.

“Just about all of our U.S. facilities have an apprenticeship program, where we actually recruit people from within our facilities, and we partner with a local community college to create the curriculum and put them through a multiyear training program. Each one varies a bit, but in some cases, they achieve a journeymen’s card or other certification.”

Keppler said so far, the results are promising.

“The retention has been good with these programs,” he added.

Another approach Whirlpool has embarked on at one of its U.S. locations is recruiting students straight out of high school and then sponsoring them while they obtain a two-year degree.

“They work in one of our facilities while we sponsor them,” Keppler said. “If that works well, we expect to expand it.”

Keppler said from a product development standpoint, Whirlpool is at the “head of the pack” in integrating technology into its appliances.

“We have partnerships with technology companies, and we’ve had product in the marketplace for several years,” he said.

So far, demand has been slow to build, but Keppler said that isn’t slowing down Whirlpool’s focus on building smart appliances.

“What you are going to see us do next year is offer an entire suite of products that will be connected,” he said.

He said Whirlpool is working to provide consumers with unique features focused on ease of use and convenience.

“We ultimately want to get to a point where if we have a product enhancement after the product has already shipped to your home, we don’t want to inconvenience you by scheduling a service tech to come out and make the change,” he said. “We would like to be able to push software updates and other information automatically, similar to what you would see with your smartphone, so software updates happen seamlessly.”

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