A robot that contributes to worker health

June 17, 2014— Thetford Mines, Quebec

The robotic cell in Oceania Baths' facilities

Oceania Baths of Thetford Mines, Quebec, has been manufacturing high-quality acrylic bathtubs, showers and therapeutic bathtubs since 1995. With its well-designed, carefully assembled products, the company has gradually carved out a special niche for itself among specialty distributors in Canada and the United States. In 2012, in response to growing demand, the company decided to automate the fibreglass spraying operation in order to increase production quality and improve working conditions in its plant.

Hand spraying of the exterior surfaces of products with fibreglass requires repetitive movements that can often lead to back and shoulder aches and tendonitis. In addition to addressing the problem of work absences and the difficulty of finding people to do the job, Oceania Baths wanted to minimize losses of fibreglass, a costly raw material, and achieve a higher level of consistency in product quality.

"We'd been thinking about it for a long time," explained Charles Paré, Operations Manager for Oceania Baths. "In early 2012, we bought two FANUC painting robots from a firm that no longer wanted them, but we needed help to integrate a robotic cell into our Thetford Mines facilities. For that, we turned to Paul-Émile Fournier, our Industrial Technology Advisor (ITA) with the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP)."

Oceania Baths is very pleased with the results of their new digital technology. “In terms of quality, we have seen an approximately 15% reduction in fibreglass losses (approximately $100,000 annually) and a significant decrease in the number of products rejected or requiring repairs or adjustments."
said Mr. Paré, Operations Manager, Oceania Baths

A well-executed project

The ITA suggested that Oceania Baths call the Centre de robotique et de vision industrielles (CRVI) in Lévis, a college technology transfer centre, to validate its choice of technology. CRVI confirmed that FANUC robots would enable the company to effectively automate the fibreglass spraying process. From May 2012 to February 2013, through the financial support of NRC-IRAP and its Digital Technology Adoption Pilot Program (DTAPP), Oceania Baths installed and configured the first robot in its plant.

The first step, which was carried out in the spring of 2012, was to select the location where the robot would be installed and to build a well-ventilated closed space for the spraying operations. The next step was to install the robot and control panels and to conduct initial testing, which took about six weeks. To make the most of its new equipment, Oceania Baths then tackled the issue of programming the robot's operations, a delicate task that they wanted to do in-house. "The staff of CRVI provided us with excellent advice on the capabilities of the robotic sprayer," said Mr. Paré. "The DTAPP funding was also used to carry out programming and to provide training for the in-house workers who would be operating the robotic cell."

The robot was initially programmed to spray fibreglass on showers and can currently handle roughly 60% of Oceania Baths' products. Other more specialized products, such as therapeutic bathtubs, require more steps and a higher level of detail and must still be sprayed by hand. Rapid and significant results

After 15 months using the spraying robot, Oceania Baths is very pleased with the results. "In terms of quality, we have seen an approximately 15 percent reduction in fibreglass losses and a significant decrease in the number of products rejected or requiring repairs or adjustments," said Mr. Paré. "In terms of raw materials alone, we have achieved annual savings of approximately $100,000."

The plant's production capacity has increased by about 25%, from about 20 showers a day to 30, and its manufacturing lead time has been reduced: what Oceania Baths' used to do in eight days it now does in five.

Lastly, after one year, the company is seeing a much lower incidence of back and shoulder aches, far fewer work absences and an increase in overall employee satisfaction. What's more, the robot did not result in any job losses. In fact, the automation of the spraying process allowed the company to assign employees to other tasks in the plant.

Tremendous growth opportunities

Through the financial support of NRC-IRAP and DTAPP, Oceania Baths was able to accelerate this first step in the automation of its production chain. "The funding allowed us to improve our in-house expertise and to complete our project six months ahead of schedule," said Mr. Paré. Oceania Baths is coming away from the experience with greater potential to expand into new markets, including Ontario, where the company already does 15% of its business. "We are confident that within five years we will be able to regain the market share lost in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, particularly in the United States," concluded Mr. Paré. "We are looking at increasing our workforce by roughly a dozen over the next few years by providing a level of quality that our competitors cannot match."

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