CNC machine shop increases efficiency with Sawyer cobot

Fitzpatrick Manufacturing, a Sterling Heights, Michigan-based CNC shop and custom manufacturer founded in 1952, supplies parts to more than a dozen sectors, including aerospace, automotive, medical equipment and oil and gas. To increase operational and counterbalance a tight labor market, Fitzpatrick Manufacturing made its initial foray into advanced automation by adopting a Sawyer collaborative robot from Rethink Robotics.

Sawyer is helping Fitzpatrick Manufacturing hone parts that become components for the motion control industry. However, Fitzpatrick Manufacturing envisions additional Sawyer robots helping with kitting and quality inspection applications in the near future.


Fitzpatrick Manufacturing turned to automation to increase operational efficiency and improve part quality. The company’s jobs are getting bigger, but it’s getting harder to find people willing to do the work.

“This machine tending application was mindless and tedious,” Kevin LaComb, co-president at Fitzpatrick Manufacturing, tells The Robot Report. “There were four people rotating on this job to prevent boredom. They’re just taking parts and loading them into the machine, checking the parts, washing them, and packaging them. They’re under the impression they’d be a machine operator, but they’re on the most boring job ever.”

LaComb says this created quality control issues. “When a human was in front of it, customers would sometimes say two of the 70 pieces we shipped to them were oily. We forgot to wash them. Sawyer doesn’t forget to do that. Any part in the box is 100 percent correct and has been washed. Sometimes parts were packed upside down, too, and our customers wouldn’t catch that either.”


Fitzpatrick Manufacturing thought about adopting automation for three before finally pulling the trigger on Sawyer. The company became somewhat familiar with Sawyer after seeing the robot at various tradeshows.

Sawyer is helping hone parts that become components for the motion control industry. Sawyer identifies which part to run first and loads it into the honing machine. When the first part is finished, Sawyer removes it, loads a second part into the machine and places the first part in the wash station.

Sawyer then dries the part at the air blow station before packaging it in a box for shipment. With 400 spots on the pin board to process, Sawyer can package between 280 and 300 before a human worker needs to intervene. This process could take five to eight hours, which allows Sawyer to run overnight, lights out, and have all the parts ready to go when workers arrive back at the facility.

Fitzpatrick Manufacturing picked the Sawyer in part because of its current specs, which include 7 degrees of freedom, a 1260 mm (1 meter) reach, 4 kg (8.8 lbs) payload and 0.1 mm task repeatability. Sawyer also features an embedded Cognex Vision System in the arm for detection and inspection, and it supports external camera integration, too. The Intera Insights software is also useful, providing real-time key performance indicators (KPIs) such as cycle times and part counts to Fitzpatrick Manufacturing employees on the floor.

“There’s a lot of power built into Sawyer,” says LaComb. “All of these features will have a purpose one day as software updates come. We don’t know where Sawyer will be in 2-3 years, but certainly it will bring more utility to the equation soon.”

LaComb says Fitzpatrick Manufacturing spent about $46,000 on the project. Shaltz Automation started the integration in November 2017, and it should have taken about two weeks. However, once LaComb and company had possession of Sawyer and learned more about what it could do, mission creep took over and lengthened the installation, which was completed by the end of January 2018.

Jon Mutz, a team leader at Fitzpatrick Manufacturing, is now responsible for all the programming on Sawyer. There are three other people at the company who can operate Sawyer. “When Sawyer first hit the floor, I had zero experience with robotics,” he says. “I’m a machinist. I could run a CNC machine and that’s it. The distributor got it up and running and I got a quick hands-on tutorial. Then I jumped on Rethink’s website and went through the training portal, which was extremely helpful. After about two weeks, it became extremely easy to use.”


Thanks to Sawyer, LaComb says Fitzpatrick Manufacturing is now producing, on average, 300 pieces more per day. Four employees have gone from standing in front of a machine for 10 hours every day to acting as a caretaker for Sawyer for just 1 hour per 1,000 pieces produced.

“A human outproduced Sawyer for the first 2-3 hours of the day, but after that, things slow down due to boredom. And robots don’t take a bathroom break, lunch break, coffee break. As long as there isn’t problem with Sawyer, he’s working. Humans now just make sure Sawyer has parts. If it doesn’t, they load more into Sawyer and take boxes away.”

Under normal circumstances, LaComb says the ROI would have been about one year. But because the lights-out concept has been more robust than expected, and Sawyer’s running 24 hours a day Monday thru Friday, plus additional weekend hours, LaComb expects the ROI will be closer to 7-8 months.

“If it didn’t work out, we weren’t going to lose the farm,” LaComb says. “Long-term, it will make us more profitable because that person Sawyer replaced is now on a higher-end activity within the company, and the machine is producing more dollars per hour.”

And it appears automation will become an ever bigger part of Fitzpatrick Manufacturing’s operations. LaComb predicts there will be 3-5 Sawyer robots in the company’s packaging area in the next 1-2 years. “A big part of this experiment is seeing if we can have Sawyer in our packaging area building kits. We’re already making 17 of a customer’s 25 components, so we’re starting to receive requests to build kits.”

LaComb says some customers are also demanding 100 percent inspection of the products being shipped from Fitzpatrick Manufacturing’s facility. The company has that capability, but a human is currently doing this manually. LaComb thinks Sawyer can handle this task, too. “It’s an expensive piece of inspection equipment,” he admits. “But on the weekends we can stack the parts in front of Sawyer, it loads the parts in and inspects them. Now we just used our downtime for checking parts.”
LaComb says Fitzpatrick Manufacturing employees on the floor range in age from 18-62 years old. He says the under-40 crowd was excited about working with a robot, while the over-40 employees were not. “They didn’t think it would ever work,” LaComb says. “They would say, ‘how much time are you going to put into this.’ But the over-40 employees have come around pretty quickly.”

LaComb says another interesting benefit is that Sawyer is an attention-grabber when customers come to the facility. “The young people think Sawyer is neat, and it sparks their interest in manufacturing,” he says. “Schools, and moms and dads, don’t do a good job explaining what manufacturing actually is. When people see Sawyer working, it sends a message that manufacturing is a high-tech industry and not a 1950s machine shop.”

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