Well-timed automation investment powers Stanley Black & Decker through pandemic

Posted on 9 Jan 2021 by Karen Queen

When COVID-19 hit the US in March, Stanley Black & Decker had just stepped up automation at its tool assembly plant in Fort Mill, S.C. The change positioned the company to easily maintain production during the pandemic and meet a growing demand for hand tools from do-it-yourselfers spending more time at home.

“The pandemic exacerbated a problem that has existed in manufacturing for a long time—a lack of people,” said Eric Cowan, VP, Industry 4.0, solution delivery and automation at Stanley Black & Decker.  “When we can automate tasks, it makes people’s jobs easier.”

The 345,000 square foot manufacturing plant just outside Charlotte, N.C. is the company’s flagship power tool assembly operation in the United States. The factory opened in late 2018 and hired 550 people. Workers at the plant assemble drills, impactors and wrenches to be sold as individual tools or as part of kits. Stanley Black & Decker invested an additional $1.5m in automation at the factory in 2019, with a goal of an 18-month ROI. To date, the team has witnessed a 15-20% reduction in labor across the packing area.

“We’re seeing record sales out of that location,” Cowan said. “As we work toward organic growth, projects like this are important.”

Overall, Stanley Black & Decker reported third quarter 2020 net sales of $3.9bn, up 6% compared to third quarter 2019, led by 11% growth in tools and storage, the company said. The company’s gross margin rate for the quarter was also up from third quarter 2019 as volume, productivity, cost management and price more than offset by higher currency and operating costs related to the pandemic.

“The third quarter was one of the most remarkable and memorable quarters in my 20-plus-years with the company,” said president and CEO, James M. Loree. “In the third quarter, we successfully pivoted to organic growth, capturing the strong demand trends in tools and storage while leveraging our swift and effective cost actions to deliver record operating margins and earnings per share as well as impressive free cash flow. The agility of our team and its ability to navigate, collaborate and shift key areas of focus during this period was truly a differentiator for us.”

The company has roots on the Stanley side back to 1843 and heritage on the Black & Decker side back to 1910; the companies combined in 2010.

“We’re very proud of our earnings,” Cowan said. “You always want to know the work you’re doing matters. We see the work we’re doing matters and we see it transfer into sales.”

Well planned automation implementation

Stanley Black & Decker invested an additional $1.5bn in automation at the factory in 2019 - image courtesy of SB&D.
Stanley Black & Decker invested an additional $1.5bn in automation at the factory in 2019 – image courtesy of SB&D.

Although the timing of the implementation worked out well, Stanley Black & Decker had begun preparing much earlier.

“We started an Industry 4.0 program in 2017 and created an advanced manufacturing center in Hartford, Conn., called the Manufactory, designed to be a hub of our 4.0 efforts,” Cowan said. “Our original goals for the Fort Mill project were to improve efficiency as part of our pack out operation, the dull, dirty and dangerous aspects of the factory, and improve ergonomics.”

Stanley Black & Decker sent its advanced manufacturing team south to lead a workshop at the plant during the summer of 2019. The company identified the packing area as an area where automation would improve material flow, alleviate physical strain on workers and drive efficiency, Cowan said.

The packing operation remained a manual, repetitive and physically demanding process.

The factory already had numerous highly automated work cells for screwdriving, soldering and gluing, he said. But those cells weren’t completely integrated, creating so-called islands of automation.

“We had spot automation solutions and wanted to give the opportunity for the plant to work on more holistic solutions,” he said.

At the end of the pack line, workers manually stacked items to build the pallet, then a material handler with a forklift drove the pallet to another area where the pallet is stretch-wrapped, then driven to a distribution point to be loaded onto a truck, he said.

“When you remove that task of packing boxes and pallets, that rebalances the workload and helps with ergonomics,” Cowan said. “We had a strong local team already who had done some of these spot solutions.”

Automation added included collaborative robots, CR35 palletizers from FANUC to load pallets, and three MIR mobile robots integrated by CIMTEC to pick up pallets and take them to the wrapping station.

The factory had not implemented an automation project of that size before. The idea was not to impose a top-down solution but instead to empower plant leaders and workers, Cowan said. Another goal was to spark creativity and encourage plant leaders and workers to come up with more ideas for automation, he said.

“We wanted them to learn how to automate themselves,” Cowan said. “When we have the opportunity to upskill, it’s important to grow our talent base. We want to invest in our people and help them transform their careers. When we invest in our people, the training and experience prepares them to take on larger roles. An operator can take on the role of a technician. A technician can take on the role of an engineer. Workers have the opportunity to create new career paths where they may have thought of their job as only one thing.”

Workers were trained in programming, safety and simulation tools using the FANUC robots, both at a nearby regional FANUC facility and in Michigan, Cowan said.

“FANUC did a great job of providing support and training,” Cowan said. “Workers were trained in safety, programming, how to use cobots in this environment, how to use simulation tools,” he said. “It’s almost like playing a game of Tetris, except you’re building the same pattern every time.”

Automation doesn’t take jobs it creates them

Despite the increased automation, the Charlotte-area plant is hiring, with opening as of December, for example, for a weekend assembler, a resident engineer and a clerk, according to online job postings.

“We’re rapidly hiring now,” Cowan said. “We’re trying to onboard more people and grow. These are high-tech jobs that can be very fulfilling,” Cowan said. “We need to work to make manufacturing attractive for the next generation of folks. We need to let people know you can have an amazing career in manufacturing.”

Based on the success in Fort Mill, Stanley Black & Decker is now expanding automation at its plants in Hopkinsville, Ken., and Chesterfield, Mich., that make make engineered fasteners for the automotive and aerospace markets, Cowan said.

“Typically projects like this would be too scary, too cumbersome, too expensive because you’re relying on outside integrators,” he said. “We’re breaking down barriers to allow people to have more access to technology. With investments in their people, the industry is moving as whole to enable people to implement automation on their own.”