Manufacturing in the Age of COVID 19 - Part 2
“Planning early for a worst-case scenario helped us later”
RCM Industries is a manufacturer of die casting parts with four production plants in the Chicago area. The company’s director of sales and marketing, Mike Higgins, spoke with us about how RCM is managing the COVID-19 crisis.
Tell us how you run your production today vs. before the pandemic.
All our four plants have been substantially impacted by the pandemic—our operations are down 50-80 percent right now. Fortunately, several of our customers that we manufacture parts for are for products deemed “essential,” such as parts for the medical, military and automotive industries, so as far as keeping some workers employed, we are still better off than many other businesses in our area that had to shut down completely.
How are you protecting your employees? What types of PPE are they wearing (if deemed necessary)? Did you have to restructure your production line to minimize contagion risks?
We’re basically running a skeleton crew on-site at our plants right now. Everybody that can work from home is doing so. All on-site personnel wear masks and gloves and/or use hand sanitizers.
We actually did have a COVID-19 case in one of our plants that we immediately shut down for a week. During that time, we had a professional company come in and completely sanitize the place before we had our employees report back to work. Early on, we laid out very clear policies on what to do should this happen. These policies were shared with our suppliers, our employees, and our customers, so when it happened, we were prepared and followed through with what we had said we would do. I think this really helped all stakeholders.
Our UR cobots are deployed in two identical cells where they each tend two dual-spindle CNC lathes in the same cycle. In terms of following the social distancing guidelines, this has also proven very effective as we only need one roving inspector to oversee the operation of these cells now.
How do you communicate necessary production changes to your workforce?
It’s very difficult to tell employees that we are laying them off and that we do not know when we will be able to have them come back. We’re closely following the updates and guidelines from federal, state, local governments in terms of the stay-at-home directives. Even when those lift, we will not know for sure if our orders will be back up to where they were, with the global economy slowing down. There’s a lot of angst, of course, and we’ve let all our workers know to please keep in touch during this challenging time that we’re all going through.
How has your supply chain been impacted?
We source our raw material and most other supporting supplies domestically so we have not had any issues with any of our raw material having to cross borders, etc. We have definitely come to appreciate our short supply chain right now. The only issues I could foresee here is if we have one of our CNC machines or other equipment break down and then having to rely on maybe having parts shipped from overseas—which we, fortunately, have not experienced.
Are you relying more on automation now than before? Or, is automation helping you in new and unexpected ways?
In times like these, our automated cells have really been beneficial. The crew that we kept on staff had a broader skillset and were not familiar with the direct operation of the collaborative robots, but since the day-to-day operation of the cobots is fairly easy to learn, handle and monitor, this has not been an issue.
Machine tending application with collaborative robots from Universal Robots
Collaborative Industrial Robots Support Restoring Operation
How do you make sure your products reach the end customers on time?
By implementing automation, we were able to compete with lower-wage countries when bidding on orders for customers here in our home state. Being close to our customers is definitely more important now than ever—as a result, we have not had any delays in getting our products out. As our customers start making new decisions on future orders, I believe that choosing local suppliers is going to matter even more.
How do you think this crisis will shape your company going forward? What are some of the lessons learned?
I think we will definitely evaluate restructuring some of our workspaces. We have to look closely at how we can maximize the utilization of our floor space while still ensuring the wellbeing of our employees. Social distancing might become the new normal, and we have to be prepared for that in the long run as well. Due to the plant layout, many of our employees are already spread apart from each other, and we also already have established practices such as wearing masks, distancing personnel in common areas, dedicated personnel to wipe down key contact points in the facilities, multiple shifts, staggered lunch breaks, and the use of automation. Other options may include, for example, more of our personnel working from home more often.
What has definitely helped us was addressing the challenges head-on at an early stage and preparing for the worst. When this actually does happen then, such as the COVID case at our plant, we had policies in place and were not scrambling