How working with robots helps a team increase efficiency

Incorporating robots into daily routines has surprising impacts on the teams’ day-to-day work at a semiconductor manufacturing facility.

By Samantha Garrison May 25, 2023
Courtesy: Boston Dynamics


Learning Objectives

  • Robots enable more consistent data capture, which must be integrated into existing operations to have a real impact.
  • With new data streams from robots, reactive maintenance can shift to predictive maintenance, which in turn increases operational efficiencies.
  • Technology can have a surprising impact on not just operations, but culture and the ability to foster collaboration across teams.

Robot insights

  • This example of robots used at a semiconductor manufacturing facility showcases how productivity can increase.
  • Using robotic technology ultimately helped increase efficiency and collaboration in a production facility.

Mobile robots are among the most intriguing new technologies to enter the workplace. Once the stuff of science fiction, they are now rapidly integrating into a wide range of industries. More people are adding robots to their ranks of new co-workers, ultimately changing the way we work, though maybe not quite in the ways many of us had feared or even imagined.

Technology has a long history of evolving the way we work and the tools we use to accomplish everyday tasks. Telephones and interoffice mail gave way to computers, email and smartphones. Data logs that were once recorded by hand on pen and paper are now transmitted instantly and stored digitally. GlobalFoundries’ (GF) site in Essex Junction, Vermont, has been manufacturing semiconductors for more than 65 years and embracing change and technology has been key to the site’s decades of success. New technology offers new ways to achieve results, usually with higher accuracy and better efficiency, but it also often comes with a learning curve.

GF started rolling out an entirely new form of automation — mobile robots — to support the operational efficiency of its production facility, which manufactures semiconductors used in communication devices, radio frequency technology and more. A team oversees the deployment of automated material handling and robotic solutions, including Boston Dynamics’ Spot, an agile mobile robot that traverses rough terrain, climbs stairs and autonomously navigates the 209,000-square-foot facility.

Figure 1: Spot, which is a robot outfitted with a Spot CAM + IR (an integrated radiometric thermal camera) payload, at GlobalFoundries' Essex Junction, Vermont, facility. Courtesy: Boston Dynamics

Figure 1: Spot, which is a robot outfitted with a Spot CAM + IR (an integrated radiometric thermal camera) payload, at GlobalFoundries’ Essex Junction, Vermont, facility. Courtesy: Boston Dynamics

As a semiconductor manufacturer, GF is hyper-focused on product quality, maintenance efficiency and ensuring production uptime. Integrating robotic technology helped improve on these key metrics and the early results are promising. Working daily with a robot has also come with some surprising perks.

More prevalent data from robots

It’s no secret that data can unlock important insights in any organization, but sometimes capturing it can be a massive challenge. GF’s facility uses more than 1,000 computers and peripheral equipment that require timely monitoring and inspection.

With that many assets needing inspections, it’s not economically feasible to add fixed sensors to each piece of equipment or have staff walk through the massive facility doing inspections all day long. The sheer size of the facility means relying on other lagging process signals to detect changes in equipment performance.

Spot is now regularly helping and systematically collecting valuable data about the thermal conditions of the equipment. The robot takes the exact same images from the exact same angle at the exact same times and its work is creating entirely new, critical data streams for the team. The challenge then becomes how best to use the information.

Figure 2: The robot Spot collects valuable data about the thermal conditions of equipment at GlobalFoundries' facility. Courtesy: Boston Dynamics

Figure 2: The robot Spot collects valuable data about the thermal conditions of equipment at GlobalFoundries’ facility. Courtesy: Boston Dynamics

Making this data actionable required integrating it with an existing system, which aggregates data from equipment, including fixed sensors and now data collected by Spot. The team has one place to see all the signals from the equipment, providing a holistic view of operations. Because most of the equipment has a long life cycle and slow rate of change, it does not require a continuous data stream, but with periodic inspections by Spot, the team can better monitor these assets over time, resulting in more informed decisions to keep the facility running efficiently.

Predicting (with a robot) always beats reacting

Using robots has also influenced how the team tackles responsibilities. Previously, when equipment failed, an engineer or technician responded to address the problem tactically. Sometimes it was a quick fix, but oftentimes the parts needed weren’t immediately available or there was a shortage due to supply chain constraints. Every minute and hour that a machine is down ultimately costs valuable production time, so the team was often forced to make trade-offs to minimize the impact of downtime.

By feeding all the new data Spot is capturing into the existing analytics system, the team can now see trending analysis and identify patterns over longer periods of time. That means they now can predict equipment failures before they happen. The workflow can be adjusted to support this new approach; the team is now responsible for identifying potential failures and planning predictive maintenance accordingly. Additionally, they can also make sure they have the right parts in advance and can schedule maintenance at the most efficient times to avoid interrupting production.

Increased engagement with colleagues

Simply walking around the facility with a robot like Spot catches a lot of attention. The expectation was that the team would receive questions from colleagues who saw the robot. There was some worry that people might think it was a robot takeover. It turned out the questions were right, but the concerns about fears were wrong.

Interest in the robot and its work has surprisingly increased engagement across a wide variety of departments and has had a positive impact on the facility’s culture. The team receives numerous requests from other departments to collaborate, hoping to put the robot to work. The focus has been deploying Spot for the original thermal monitoring business case, but there is a long list of additional applications to add to Spot’s workload. There are hundreds of engineers that work on-site and as soon as they see the robots their wheels start turning on how it can support their work. The team is working hard to ensure everyone in the organization can be a part of this exciting new technology.

Demonstrating Spot’s ease of use has become a favorite pastime for the team and is contributing to the companywide interest. Within 30 minutes, users can confidently drive Spot around the facility, which seems to be a shared experience at the company, regardless of previous experience with robotics. Driving a robot, it turns out, is really entertaining.

Naturally, any new technology introduced in the workplace will take time and energy to perfect. But the best tools ultimately improve both the job itself and the workers’ experience. Based on the work thus far, mobile robots have a bright future in industrial manufacturing, especially in modernizing existing sites in the United States. The initial learning curve is far surpassed by the benefits — both operationally and culturally.

Author Bio: Samantha Garrison is Deputy Director, Factory Automation at GlobalFoundries.