Ariens Company has a history in manufacturing dating back to 1933, when Henry Ariens and his three sons developed the first American-made rotary tiller, and the company began manufacturing products for the agricultural industry.
Over the years, the Brillion, Wisconsin-based company expanded and added product offerings — entering the lawn mower market in the 1950s and the snow blower market in the 1960s. Today, the portfolio of brands includes some of the oldest and most respected names in the outdoor power equipment industry, including Ariens®, Gravely® and Sno-Tek®.
Ariens remains family-owned and operated, and is most known for snow blowers and lawn mowers. Customers expect a long-lasting product and support when they purchase an Ariens machine.
“I think the thing about the Ariens Company that most draws people to our product is our reputation for quality,” says Jerry Schuh, value stream manager at Ariens. “It’s not uncommon for us to get comments from users who have had their snow blower for 30 or even 40 or 50 years, and have had to do virtually nothing with it to keep it running. We take that reputation as a quality manufacturer very seriously.”
About 15 years ago, Ariens began practicing the principles of lean manufacturing, and it’s been an important part of daily life at the company ever since.
So when Ariens began experiencing problems with the robotic welding cells used in their manufacturing, it was an issue they wanted to address. Ariens implemented several PerformArc welding automation systems from Miller Electric Mfg. Co., resulting in major productivity gains and a noticeable reduction in downtime and service calls for the company.
More than 5,000 service calls a year
Ariens has long used robotic welding on the manufacturing floor, but in recent years they started experiencing issues with their robotic welding equipment, resulting in lost productivity in the form of machine breakdowns and downtime for service.
Robotic tech support at Ariens was averaging more than 5,000 tech calls for robotic weld cell breakdowns annually, with each call averaging 13 minutes.
“Some of the older cells, if they had a crash they were down for hours, if not even longer,” says Ron Heiting, team leader in the arms group area, machine division, which builds manufacturing equipment used to make snow blowers and lawn mowers.
“If we’re not producing product at that stage, we cannot get more product down to the assembly lines and then we don’t produce equipment for our consumers,” Heiting says. “It translates into lost production.”
Due to the age of the previous robotic equipment, which was several decades old, the company was also seeing issues with availability of service, support and parts for maintenance and repair.
“We had many experiences where we’d lose a day or two at a crack, just because we were unable to get parts,” says Jeremy Foytik, an Ariens electrician. “If we did find parts, the price was astronomical, just because of the lack of availability.”
A customized solution
In searching for a solution, Ariens technicians and workers visited with several robotic equipment manufacturers and spent time at their facilities, including Miller. To start the process, Ariens sent some of their parts and fixturing to Miller to see how they would work with the PerformArc weld cells. A video showed the actual Ariens parts being welded with the PerformArc cells for the decision makers’ review.
“It was the stuff you want to see when you’re trying to make a decision on what works,” Foytik says. “We could definitely tell the difference from the first part, that there was something different about the Miller welding process and robots.”
Ariens converted several cells in various plants with five PerformArc 350 systems and one PerformArc 750 system. The high output systems offer a full range of welding processes and come completely pre-wired and pre-assembled.
Ariens worked with Miller to customize the systems for their specific needs, programming the system with the logic layout that Ariens had been using throughout the plants. They also integrated the inputs and outputs for the Ariens fixtures, and upgraded the wiring and location of some switches on the cells.
“We customized some things to make it more user-friendly for what we do here,” Foytik says.
Simplicity of implementation
It was important for Ariens to keep productivity up during the weld cell changeover. A check list helped the company keep the implementation on track.
The units arrived about four to six weeks after the order, and Ariens had them in production within two weeks, after some on-site training at Ariens with a Miller technician.
“Implementation went seamlessly. We took delivery on the cells, and within two weeks we were able to have them up and running,” Foytik says. “We were able to take one of our old cells out one day and by that afternoon, be welding parts again on the new one.”
The systems came in with the same Tregaskiss™ guns that Ariens had been using previously, which also helped with operator training and provided a seamless transition for the conversion.
“We had weekly meetings at our end, and I would keep Miller involved throughout the whole process,” Heiting says. “Any question I had, I got an answer before the day was out. The turnaround was great.”
Reduced downtime, greater productivity
Since implementing the PerformArc automated welding cells, Ariens has seen productivity increase by about 25 percent. The company has greatly reduced the amount of time lost to maintenance, repairs and tech calls.
“Tech calls are very minimal for these units,” Heiting says.
In the past, some areas couldn’t maintain expected daily production due to the older robotic welding cells.
“But lately we’ve had increased productivity because of the robot exchange,” says Dave Lutterman, manufacturing leader in the large press fabrication department. “I know in the past we would weld a chute and a tractor frame, and it would take us roughly 140 seconds to do. We are now able to do the same thing in 89 seconds.”
The new cells let them quickly reset the arm in the event of an error recovery, so it doesn’t require a call to a technician for support. The machines go into soft servo mode when a reset is needed, which allows for rapid error recovery, and protects the robot and fixtures from damage.
“It would also keep the robots so when they reset it, it would stay in the same program. I wouldn’t have to go back to start from scratch,” Heiting says. “As soon as you would clamp the fixture back up, you could run it and it would complete the cycle, where the other robots would not do that.”
The new cells also offer easier setup and make it quicker for operators to change from model to model. The addition of the offline programming gives Ariens the ability to go through the weld process virtually, so they can make fixtures that work for the robots from the start, without having to make changes on the fly once the process has begun. This Desk Top Programming and Simulation (DTPS) feature helps minimize production downtime, too, by allowing Ariens to program the parts faster with greater accuracy and more accurate costing.
“That has given us the ability to look at our products and look at our fixtures before we even build them,” Foytik says. “That way we can keep running the parts that are there and not have to spend a couple of hours having a tech there.”
Production quality up 94 percent
In addition to keeping an eye on productivity, Ariens wants to ensure that any product going out the door is of the highest possible quality.
Issues using the previous robotic cells included weld spatter, missing welds and short welds.
“Our older robots, some of them had 80,000-plus hours on them. They were actually taking away a lot of our quality because they couldn’t keep up anymore,” Lutterman says. “They were missing welds, we were getting weld spatter on products, porosity in our welds.”
After the PerformArc systems were implemented, quality increased dramatically.
“Since the implementation, we’ve actually improved our quality on the south side by 94 percent,” Lutterman says. “We’re actually delivering a lot higher quality product to our in-house customer, which makes for a better product to our outside customers.”
The quick-change feature on the PerformArc cells is a big improvement, since Ariens runs so many different units. In the past, they would have to call a robotic technician to reprogram the cell every time they changed a model. With the quick change, they can push a button to change the program when they change models or go to a different chute or frame, for example.
The noticeable improvement in quality means a much cleaner product, which results in less time and money spent on rework for Ariens.
“In the past we would have large bins of rework that we would have to send to a manual booth to go through and rework all of the welds on it,” Lutterman says. “That was cut dramatically. The system itself is just a much cleaner process. We don’t have the dust flying around like we used to. We don’t have the weld spatter flying around like we used to. We’re not sanding chutes; we’re not sanding frames like we used to.”
That has also helped Ariens reduce inventory levels in that department, from four big bins down to less than two.
The right partner
The PerformArc systems offer Ariens flexibility to move the cells to a new location in their facility. The pre-engineered system has a fully welded frame, and they can simply be disconnected from utilities, relocated with a forklift and reconnected.
“We’ve been on the lean manufacturing journey for quite a while now, and along with that, we end up moving and changing quite a bit. One day, somebody might get the idea that if we move these 10 feet the other way, we could probably do things a little better and a little more efficiently,” Foytik says. “It’s easily done with these cells.”
Ariens plans to move forward with more cell conversions to the Miller PerformArc systems, including four a year in one of their plants to replace 20 cells there.
“We know in order for us to ensure that we’re making the highest quality product, we also have to strategically team with vendors that are able to support us, and are able to produce the kind of quality that we need in our product,” Schuh says. “It’s very important for us to choose the right vendors when we make major strategic decisions like which robotic partner to team with.”