Wiley Davis, an entrepreneur and avid outdoorsman, conceived of his manufacturing business while driving home from a surfing and camping trip to Baja California, Mexico, in 2017. After struggling once again to fit his 6-ft, 4-inch frame into his 6-ft truck bed to sleep, Davis envisioned what became Go Fast Campers (GFC), a manufacturer of customized, lightweight pop-up truck campers.
Five years later, the CEO and co-founder has expanded GFC into a vertically integrated, highly automated manufacturing operation based in Bozeman, Mont. The company’s products are designed to fit a wide range of vehicle brands and models as well as accessory products. GFC now manufactures 174 unique parts—including bolts, connectors, and hinges—used in a variety of camper platforms, toppers, frames, and accessories.
The company’s steady progress has been a team effort, led by Davis’ foresight along with the dedication, resolve, and creativity of other senior leaders, as well as that of dozens of skilled technicians and operators throughout the plant—with growing support from advanced automation systems.
Tending to Business
In fact, much of GFC’s success can be attributed to the company’s partnership with Universal Robots (UR) A/S. The supplier’s line of UR5 machine-tending cobots works side-by-side throughout the Bozeman facility with their human counterparts.
“Had we not built the entire company around the concept of automation, our 65 employees wouldn’t have those jobs at all,” Davis asserted. “And the products we make—if we were able to form a company around it—would only be affordable to a very tiny portion of people.”
Davis previously owned a much smaller company that manufactured off-road motorcycle parts. There, he discovered first hand the challenges of manual machine tending. “In the beginning, I designed all the parts, I made all the parts, I shipped all the parts—basically everything having to do with the business I had to do,” he explained. “When you have to stand in front of a machine, pushing a button, if you step away for anything, those parts don’t get made. I knew you could tend machines with robots, so there was a ‘wouldn’t it be nice if’ scenario running around in my head.”
Because the business required fast design changes, Davis needed flexible automation. And with no background in robotics, he also needed a solution he could learn quickly. “I didn’t want to spend six months trying to figure out how to use the robot, or solve the robot’s problems,” he said.
Once he decided to add automation, Davis dove head first into the project—despite not having any previous experience. Committing to learn on the fly, he ordered a UR5 cobot and downloaded the manual to read before the robot arrived.
The first self-taught integration started simply: The cobot loaded and unloaded parts from a Haas CNC machine, using an M-code relay and a wire to one of the inputs on the cobot so it could push a button to open the machine door. Over time, the program evolved and became more efficient with the addition of an inexpensive air cylinder for the door and a relay on the cycle-start switch connected to one of the cobot’s outputs. That allowed the robot’s controller to manage the process while saving wear on the robot’s joints.
This early success reinforced Davis’ enthusiasm. “The dream scenario that had played in my head standing at the machine turned out to be true, because once that got running—even in a very limited capacity—it basically cut the time I had to stand at the machine in half,” he said. “That allowed me to start focusing on other things, like making better designs, hiring, and getting new people trained, and I started thinking about new ideas. The fact that Go Fast Campers exists is, to a large degree, due to that, because otherwise I’d still be there, overwhelmed with all of the parts that I had to make.”
GFC’s original UR5 cell has expanded to four fully integrated machine tending cells using UR5e cobots. And their use continues to evolve and become more sophisticated. “What we’re attempting to do is to run any part that we throw at it without having to make a new program,” Davis explained.
This provides flexibility and improves reliability, because GFC doesn’t need to test and monitor new programs before moving them into production.
“Machine tending has always been a bread and butter application for cobots, but GFC has taken it to the next level,” said Joe Campbell, UR’s senior manager of applications development and strategic marketing. “The fact that they could teach themselves how to leverage UR’s open platform and external I/O logic and install a complete solution showcases the ease of use and sophistication of UR cobots.”
All GFC parts start as raw aerospace-grade aluminum billet material that is cut into seven different standard stock sizes and loaded on trays at the four cobot-manned machining cells. Each robot uses the same program, with minimal input from operators, to define which part is being manufactured. The robot picks a piece, sets it in a re-grip station so it can find the part’s center, and loads it into the machine. The machine mills the first operation, the robot flips the part to machine the second operation, the part is ejected out of the vise, and a retractor arm pulls the parts into a wash bin, ready for subsequent processes.
The cobots’ built-in I/Os allow GFC to control all of the auxiliary systems through the robot’s program. Flexibility is enhanced with the capability to plug in different pins to different pneumatic systems.
“This has been incredibly useful for us as we actuate the vise, the ejector mechanism, the extractor mechanism, and the door cylinder that opens and closes the door,” explained COO Stephan Morris.
Another key is the force-feedback capabilities of the UR5e and a gripper from Robotiq that is UR+ certified to seamlessly integrate with UR cobots. The setup allowed Davis to build a reliable, safe system without having to invest in additional sensors and loads it into the machine. The machine mills the first operation, the robot flips the part to machine the second operation, the part is ejected out of the vise, and a retractor arm pulls the parts into a wash bin, ready for subsequent processes.
“We’re trying to make very good use of the UR ecosystem: all of the other products… and support from people and from other companies,” added Ian Sparkman, GFC’s special projects team engineer. “Being able to add something onto a UR that gives us even more information out of our application has been extremely valuable.”
Teaming Up on Efficiency
The GFC team has also made good use of UR applications engineering support, which provided valuable insight into communications protocols to help guide new projects.
“Traditionally in a machine shop, you’ll see one operator per machine,” Morris said. “With the automation that we’ve been able to achieve with UR robots and our engineering team and Wylie’s initial developments, we’re able to run four machines with one operator over two shifts a day.”
Most GFC employees work four 10-hour shifts per week, giving the company about 22 hours per day of machine time, some 16 hours of which is manned. The cobot cells run lights out, which gives first- and second-shift employees time to communicate about the day’s requirements without slowing production.
The UR5’s flexibility and ease of programming allow GFC to run 20 to 25 jobs across the four machining centers each day, with job changeovers taking 10 to 15 minutes. The machine cells produce just the quantities needed for that day—whether that’s 15 or 500 pieces. This enables the company to make quick part changes as opportunities arise.
“An engineer can go in, work with an operator, make changes to a part, update the machine program, and push that part through,” Morris explained. “You might only be scrapping a small inventory, but having that type of integration throughout the entire company allows us to stay flexible and take feedback from our customers.”
The ease-of-use and safety features of the cobots allow operators to easily move them out of the way to access the system and problem solve.
Production engineer Michael Galli, who started in the machine shop as an operator with a minimal background in robotics, said his previous mindset was “No matter what, you had to be present at the machine.” Once he started working with the UR cobots, his view changed dramatically.
“Now that we’re able to phase out some of those consistent, repetitive jobs, we can focus more on overarching improvements or ways to make things better,” he noted. “I’m able to do QC on a part while the robot is actively loading or unloading a part at the same time. Before, that would have been a whole extra step, or an extra employee.
“It allows you to diversify your skillset and what you can accomplish as an operator,” he continued. “I think that is one of the big reasons I was able to focus more on what was going on behind the scenes, and segue into engineering.”
Having experienced the advantages of robotic automation for a small business and with new engineering innovations, GFC has begun turning its system into a product that can be sold to other small manufacturers. The goal is to let companies reliably make any part that fits within a specific build volume in a fully automated way.
“If you prototype it and it works out, fill the stock tray, hit the button, and you’re in production,” Davis said.
While automation tools are typically seen in larger businesses, Davis believes they have the most power for small companies. This is part of GFC’s philosophy of developing and building products that customers feel good buying.
“If I go to buy something, I want to buy it from the person who cares about it and has put a lot of time and a good part of their life into making the best possible thing that they can make,” Davis explained. “And I don’t think you can achieve that in a really giant company. But if a small company doesn’t have access to these tools, there’s no way they can compete. Automation is a really powerful tool to allow for a much bigger diversity of products and perspectives.”
There are also financial benefits for workers. At Go Fast Campers, the company’s entry-level base wage of $52,500 a year plus benefits is possible because of automation.
“Our goal and our promise to our employees is, as we continue to bring new products in-house, as we continue to develop more automation across different areas of our factory, we’re going to keep increasing that entry-level wage,” Morris declared. “In doing so, every employee becomes more productive, our team becomes more productive, and ultimately, we become more competitive.”
He added: “By showing our customers that we use automation throughout our manufacturing operations, especially the UR robots in our machine-tending centers, we want to give our customers confidence that these products are being made ethically, and being made to the highest degree of quality.”