Managers at RB Royal Industries, an old brass company in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, first noticed it as a people problem. Newer factory workers kept quitting because their work was worse than boring. First, they'd place a little brass tube into a fixture, wait for the machine to bend it. After a few seconds, take the tube out and drop it into a bin.

It was excruciating work for workers in Wisconsin's hot manufacturing economy. These folks have a lot of options

All the world's a stage

So with fewer workers to stage the work, these parts could get put aside as more urgent or complicated tasks took priority. Jobs that get put aside are called "work in process," and work in process is a bad thing if it ever rises to anyone's attention. 

Attention? Yes, as in, "Spacely Sprockets is looking for their assembly--where the heck did we put those bendy brass thingies?" RB doesn't actually serve Spacely Sprockets, as far as I know. It works with other companies that serve a number of industries, including the marine world. Those companies do not want to be told their job will be late.

Besides scheduling issues, those newer workers didn't know that if they damaged tooling--the jigs and fixtures that help form the brass--it could take 8 weeks for repairs. And bored, inexperienced folks could really hurt tooling. 

RB Royal turned to recent graduates of the University of Wisconsin's Stout campus to help figure the issue out. These manufacturing engineers recommended that a small robot be given the job that no factory worker wanted. The company brass--pun always intended-quickly approved the purchase.

Hey, I said RB was an old brass company, which it is--76 years and counting. I didn't say it wasn't dynamic.

Many players

It is an old company with energetic people and a spirit of creativity. That's my judgment of the two engineers I met at a recent manufacturing conference. I struck up a conversation with Adam Waldvogel, and within moments he and his colleague, Bart Hallgren, were showing me a phone video of the robot solution RB came up with.

I haven't met anybody else at RB, but I feel I know their operation. Because what kind of company sends its enterprising young people to share ideas at a conference? Companies that know that they will improve productivity, and more importantly, morale, by challenging young people to use creative energy to solve practical problems.

Now Waldvogel and Hallgren monitor manufacturing processes that include a small fleet of robots. Each robot is about the size of a bar stool. The robots are factory helpers that make experienced human workers more productive.

Exits and entrances

These little guys are different from the robotic monsters we've all seen in those flashy spot-welder ballet commercials. Those robots are large, expensive, bolted in place and dangerous. The ones we are talking about now are small, safe and often moveable from one operation to another. I heard them called "collaborative."

They are also easily programmable, because telling the robot what to do on the factory floor doesn't involve code. Instead, a worker runs the robot through the operation to be performed and saves the program in the robot's memory.

In a later conversation, Waldvogel and Hallgren told me that RB's robots can hold about 100 programs each. So when a customer comes in with a repeat job, the managers just search for the program they used the last time.

And "manager" in this case can be a flexible concept. It doesn't necessarily take the normal idea of an executive, or even of an engineer, to set up the job. Experienced line workers can do the set-ups themselves. "It makes operators feel like owners," Hallgren says.

And one robot in his time plays many parts

One additional benefit: better parts. Before, the worker performing repetitive tasks would sometimes deliver parts with defects. "Now, a man watching a couple of these robots knows that his job is to ensure quality. He has the time and the motivation to deliver the customer a better job," Waldvogel says.

I won't disclose RB's exact payback economics of a collaborative robot. Let's say it works two shifts, and expands the reach of the men on the floor.  So a machine that costs about as much as a year's salary pays back handsomely, and really fast.

The play's the thing

Oh, and another thing. The Wisconsin University system's prestige has historically been hugely weighted towards the flagship campus in Madison, and UW Stout was considered a kind of steady regional school. But it's time to congratulate Stout. Your two recent graduates, who carry the pride of their work in personal cell phone videos, are the best ambassadors you could want.

I think finding a Wisconsin job shop that uses innovative robots is a great anecdote. Seen from another perspective, when the same company lets a couple of go-getters run loose in a culture of initiative?

That's the story.