Cutting Edge Robotics and Manufacturing Keep the New ECS on the Cutting Edge
The year Elevator Cable Supply (ECS) Corporation opened its doors, gas cost 27 cents a gallon, an average house cost $12,500 and John F. Kennedy had just been sworn in as the 35th President of the United States. It was 1961 and the family-run company focused on supplying elevator parts, such as selector tape, switches, buttons and interlocks before transforming itself into a leading supplier of escalator parts.
At the time of its founding, ECS occupied 3,000 square feet on the second floor of a Chicago office building. Now the company is located 15 miles west of the city in Broadview, IL and, under new management, has grown to 24,000 square feet. The total space is divided between an offsite warehouse for overflow stock and its primary location which contains offices, a will call area and manufacturing plant.
ECS Corporation always took pride in using technological advancements to improve its manufacturing process. The company invested heavily throughout the years to increase efficiency and take advantage of new opportunities, purchasing its first computer numerical control (CNC) machine in the early 1980s. Now CNCs are found throughout the plant and have been joined by two industrial robotic welders.
The CNC machines play various roles in producing a diverse product assortment. Turned parts such as roller hubs, pin bushings, and axles keep a series of lathes constantly running. To help automate the process, a bar feeder was installed next to the newest Mazak CNC Lathe. With the capability to run 24/7 without assistance, the bar feeder improved efficiency since the operator can turn his attention to other machines during a production run.
The lathe itself employs cutting edge technology to ensure tight tolerances on critical parts. It is able to achieve one tenth, which means it correctly positions the tool end to within one tenth of one thousandth of an inch or ±0.0001”.
Non-turned parts are cut on one of the two Mitsubishi CNC Vertical Milling Centers (VMC). The company originally purchased one to precisely cut parts, but soon realized its benefits of increasing productivity and reducing scrap. The second machine was later purchased to produce step chain links. By machining the links as opposed to stamping them, ECS could supply non-matching and tagged chain for Montgomery style escalators. The VMCs also enabled the company to manufacture parts for companies outside the vertical transportation industry.
As technology advanced, milling chain links was no longer the most efficient way to produce them. Though some models are now supplied through strategic partnerships, ECS continues to produce Westinghouse style rack chain by utilizing its Mitsubishi CNC Laser Cutter. Laser cutting the steel has more than quadrupled the throughput of the rack chain laminations.
The laser cutter has the capacity to cut a 48” x 96” steel sheet of up to 3/8” in thickness. After the operator loads a plate, he can tend to other tasks as the machine cuts strips for eight laminations during the one hour process.
Though the milling machines no longer cut the lamination sheets, they drill the holes needed in their finished assembly. Since the laminations require horizontal as well as vertical drilling, the machine is programmed to run two operations in one routine. Two laminations are secured onto the working table, one vertically and the other horizontally, after which the machine cuts one then the other. Once the routine is completed, the operator switches the position of the laminations and reruns the program.
Automating the company did not stop with CNC machines. Two industrial robotic welders are a key component to the speed and efficiency with which ECS operates. One welds steel components, such as joints and hubs in the Westinghouse rack chain laminations. The other welds aluminum on worn treads as part of the escalator step refurbishment process.
Before the steps arrive at the robotic cell, they are inspected and any with structural damage are rejected. Each step style has different welding parameters so the operator selects the appropriate program. The step is loaded onto a platform which spins to place it in front of the robot. A camera mounted to the end effector uses light to detect damaged ribs and then the robot applies the weld. What was historically a two- to three-person job is now a one-person job per shift. The company estimates it has saved 20 man-hours per day in this cell alone which enabled them to refocus and reallocate staff to other areas of the business.
Other savings the company has seen due to the implementation of robots has been in the steel welding cell. To produce rack chain laminations manually, the company could expect to weld 90 – 100 per day. Now the robot can cycle through 240 laminations per day.
Overall the robots have improved the quality and repeatability of welds by significantly reducing the element of human error. Though the technology did replace manual labor, the company now requires employees with a higher skill set to run and maintain them.
When visitors tour the manufacturing plant at ECS, the robots and CNC machines tend to be the main focal points. What is often overlooked are the less “glamourous” pieces of equipment that enable the company to produce quality products and services. A polyurethane machine to produce rollers inhouse was recently upgraded to improve production output. Early on the machine could process 180 lbs. of material, however with the upgrade that number climbed to 920 lbs per shift.
In conjunction with lathe-produced aluminum hubs, as well as a sand blaster and industrial ovens, ECS has the capability to produce a wide variety of elevator and escalator rollers. Though large volume rollers are supplied through strategic partnerships, it is more cost-effective to do small production runs in house. “We’re able to support our customers with the best of both worlds,” says Mike Anzelone, Machine Shop Supervisor, “Either we have a high turnover roller already in stock or we’re able to produce, even reverse engineer, obscure rollers with small production runs in a matter of days”.
Escalator step cleaning is another area that has seen recent equipment improvements. Advancements were made to inhouse step cleaning as a result of an investment in a custom designed conveyor washer to decrease cycle time. The on-site step cleaning service received a significant boost from the purchase of equipment to support growing demand.
Looking to the Future
In 2013 ownership of the company changed hands and eventually none of the original family members remained. Under new leadership, ECS Corp. has become more than a manufacturer by expanding into elevator components. Other areas of investment include a will call center to supply local technicians as well as reverse engineering support to help customers service older equipment. A renewed focus on employee training ensures a well-qualified staff in each area of the business.
“We’ve always excelled at manufacturing a quality product,” says company President Rick Milefchik,” where we fell short was serving our customers. Not only do we commit to improving the customer’s experience, we plan to increase our offerings to ensure we’re fully meeting their needs. It’s exciting to reintroduce ECS Corp. to the industry and showcase our full range of capabilities.”