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Eckhart is Your Factory-of-the-Future Guru

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Eckhart’s factory of the future workshops help OEMs transform their operations.

Historically, Eckhart’s customers came inbound with specific and detailed definition of automation equipment and tooling they required.  That’s changed significantly in the last couple of years.  With a fast-changing industrial technology landscape and fewer internal resources to help draft technical requirements, Eckhart’s customers are increasingly seeking partnership upstream in their capital project planning initiatives. “We like to work with customers that are being tasked with ambitious operational goals, but are maybe light on exactly the best path to arrive at those outcomes,” Vice President of Business Development and a MIT-trained engineer Dan Burseth asserts.

A typical Eckhart engagement begins with a site visit to assess the operational current state and the KPIs important to a customer.  Eckhart brings industry specific process engineers to develop an understanding of what’s possible and what’s a realistic solution that can be introduced in a phased approach. “We’re not forced to recommend specific brands or components if they don’t make sense. We’re able to draw on a library of fabrication and assembly methods that we know with certainty are proven elsewhere. Our flexibility leads to the best outcome with respect to price and fit for the customer,” he says.

Warren, Mich.-based Eckhart specializes in automation and Industry 4.0 solutions for a blue chip Fortune 500 customer base. The company has more than 60 years of manufacturing and integration track record and now serves its clients through eight manufacturing and engineering sites across the United States.

Its customer base includes many blue-chip OEMs, including Boeing, John Deere, General Mills, Honeywell, Medtronic and Honda. “Above all us, we’re interested in delivering the most reliable solution. The industrial technology landscape has exploded recently and we put a tremendous amount of effort into identifying what’s actually ready for a high stakes operation and what’s trade show window dressing,” Burseth says.

Guiding the Way

Eckhart is proud of its Factory of the Future offering, which developed organically as more customers came inbound with an underdefined vision of what was needed. “We’re seeing customers being tasked with greatly improving throughput and product quality amid unprecedented labor shortages, increasing product complexity and a fixed manufacturing space footprint. Band-aids and point solutions weren’t cutting it and a bigger system overhaul is now needed. This is a very different skillset than drafting a traditional statement of work,” Burseth says.

Specific deliverables in a Factory of the Future workshop include 2-D factory layouts, 3-D simulations, capital investment for implementation, a headcount staffing plan and phase-plan timeline.  “The 3-D simulation is incredibly valuable for painting a picture of what’s possible. There’s always tremendous status quo bias and reluctant stakeholders and a virtual representation starts the alignment process,” he says.

Improvements to operator safety and comfort are also a top future state objective. “Many factory processes will never be fully automated. The human operator will remain the centerpiece of factory operations in the U.S. for decades to come. A big part of our deliverables are improved tools and methods that allow operators to complete their job faster, easier, and safer,” Burseth says. Ergonomic lift assists, lightweight 3-D printed tooling and torque reaction systems are sample solutions towards this goal.   

Recent success includes the design of an assembly line to double the throughput of wheelchair production for a large medical equipment OEM.  The Eckhart-designed process involved zero robots, but rather simple error-proofing build fixtures, a flexible AMR-based assembly line, and connected torque tools to minimize rework. The payback period for the project is estimated to be around one year. 

On the more technology heavy front, an Eckhart Factory of the Future workshop resulted in a lights-out process for the production of electrical junction boxes that relied on both traditional and collaborative robotics, vision systems and electrical testing machines. Eckhart completed installation of the system in Mexico over a one-week holiday shutdown. 

Here to Stay

Burseth is proud of how Eckhart has helped clients with its Factory of the Future offerings. “We’re on the front lines of large-scale operations and so we’re realists and conservative in our approach. The responsibility that our customers entrust to us with mission critical work is something that we take seriously.”

He adds that the company is applying its services to more markets. “While traditionally the automotive industry accounts for upwards of 80 percent of capital equipment spend, we’re seeing what the data suggests: an explosion of automation into the medical device, CPG, aerospace and defense, and specialty vehicle industries,” he reports, adding that he expects the company to stay very busy in 2020.

“Is there anyone who thinks automation will decrease in importance?” Burseth declares. “Plant managers are being challenged to produce more and with fewer resources.  The demographic and technological trends are astounding.”

This puts Eckhart in a strong position. “We’re extremely excited about what the future holds for domestic manufacturing and the role of both people and machines for making better and more complex products,” Burseth says.

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