Making mowers in America with robotics
The "can-do" spirit is a deeply held ideal of the American tale. While many Americans are quite proud of this legacy, the realities of the modern world sometimes seem to have relegated can-do success to software innovators, such as the Facebooks and Apple Computers of the world—with recent examples in manufacturing being hard to find. However, a revival in homegrown American manufacturing is taking root in the country.
Recent increases in U.S.-based manufacturing are driven largely by advanced technology. Through a combination of determination, solid management, and robotic technology, Bad Boy Mowers, Batesville, Ark., is an example of resurgent American manufacturing success.
Founded in 1998, the company’s goal is to build the highest quality zero-turn lawn mowers available. Bad Boy’s mower sales started in 2002. The company has doubled its production every year since then. It even built a new building to meet demand. "We have hundreds of thousands of mowers out there right now," said Jeff Mynatt, director of operations for Bad Boy Mowers. "From where we started to where we are now, in such a short period of time, is pretty amazing-especially given that the zero-point-turn mower market is very competitive."
Made in the U.S.
Walking through the 800,000 sq ft of production space that Bad Boy currently occupies, it’s clear that the company has a family atmosphere. The company takes great pride in keeping as much of the manufacturing in-house—and in the U.S.—as possible (see Figure 1). "We try to do as much as we can in our own plant, and with our own machines—from getting in the metal, to fabricating it, to welding, to cutting it out, and painting it—we try to limit what we have to purchase overseas," Mynatt said.
Bad Boy fabricates its own mower decks, builds its own frames, and makes most of the small associated parts in-house. "Some mower manufacturers use a stamped deck, but we do not," Mynatt said. "Our lawn mowers are welded; they’re very strong. We use heavier metal than most mower manufacturers. Everything is fabricated by hand, and we weld in extra reinforcement, which results in a unique machine. Our mowers are built to last."
"Being made in the U.S. means everything to Bad Boy Mowers," said Landon Russell, who is part of the Bad Boy marketing and communications team. "We believe—and we have proven—that companies can build products right here in America that are even better than they used to be. Throughout the years, we’ve noticed that some of the other manufacturers in the industry have moved their production overseas, but not us. We’re proud to build a product that supports American jobs, and that our customers are proud to own."
Keeping manufacturing in the U.S.
To keep production in the U.S. while meeting demand and cost targets, Bad Boy Mowers realized early that it would have to turn to innovative advanced manufacturing techniques-specifically robotic welding. However, figuring out how to integrate robots into a production line can be overwhelming. To overcome this initial hurdle, Bad Boy turned to Randy Luster, owner of United Robotics in Springdale, Ark., a local robotics integrator with considerable experience in arc-welding applications.
"As we’ve grown and expanded, we realized very quickly that we couldn’t keep up with demand using manual labor alone," said Mynatt. "The robots can weld the mower assemblies better, faster, and more efficiently—all day long (see Figure 2). After you get the initial programming done, the robotic welders always weld a good bead. With manual welding there is more variation."
In addition to increasing productivity, maintaining a high level of quality, and keeping production in the U.S., the robotic cells help with ergonomics and safety. "The more of the production that we can do in-house, the faster it can be produced, and the better quality that we can deliver greatly reduces our need to outsource manufacturing-and the robots are a big part of that," Mynatt said. "Also, by having the robots work on the larger things, we can keep our valuable employees from having to lift heavy parts. And when the robot is welding, it’s in a confined area separate from our workers, which prevents injuries-together these things keep our employees safer."
Standardization keeps costs down
Over the last 10 years, Bad Boy Mowers has bought a new robotic welding cell almost every year. In particular, the company has standardized on ABB’s FlexArc K cell because it provides the capability of handling the mower decks and frames, as well as the associated small parts. Currently, the company has eight of these robotic welding cells running on two shifts to build around 300 mowers a day during peak season (see Figure 3).
The turnkey robotic cells have been responsible in part for keeping Bad Boy on track to double production every year. And as Bad Boy Mowers continues to grow, it can look forward to consistency because of the standardization of the robotic work cells (see Figure 4).
"We want to be the best zero-turn mower manufacturer out there," said Mynatt. "That doesn’t mean we’ll sell the most units, but we want to be the best."
– Contributed by ABB Robotics. Edited by Jack Smith, Editor, AppliedAutomation.
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