Automation Systems Integration
Taking advantage of a system integrator's expertise, manufacturers optimize critical factory-floor processes
By Patrick Waurzyniak
Specialization among automation systems integrators helps manufacturers find expertise for tuning complex manufacturing processes on the shop floor. With the right systems integrator, manufacturers can find the proper mix of automation equipment, software, and know-how to get the job done.
"The systems integrator is a very well-established value-added channel; their role is well-understood, there's a really solid base of integrators in the industry, and there's a great cross-section of specialization," notes Joe Campbell, chief operating officer for engineering consulting company Applied Manufacturing Technologies (AMT, Orion, MI).
"From my view, being one and selling to them and observing for a long time, integrators tend to fall into two categories," Campbell says. "There are industry-specific integrators, companies that just focus on an industry, and process-specific integrators. A good example of an industry-specific integrator is Kuka Flex—they do just about anything in automotive you can imagine. They're one of our bigger customers and they're a powerful systems integrator. You want 500 robots in a body shop—they're the guys that put it together.
"Integrators 25 years ago were smart guys who liked robots," Campbell adds, "and now integrators are very strong business people, and they have business strategies."
Process-specific systems integrators offer customers expertise in a particular manufacturing area. KMT Robotic Solutions Inc. (Auburn Hills, MI) offers customers its automation know-how across a wide breadth of applications and processes. KMT Robotic Solutions, part of the KMT Group, focuses on six-axis robotic trimming and cutting solutions using waterjet cutters, routers, waterjet cleaning, laser, ultrasonic knife-trimming, material handling, dispensing, and welding systems.
"We try to specialize in specific areas and specific processes," says Roberta Zald, KMT Robotic Solutions director, technology. "We focus primarily on path-intensive trimming applications. We're using a robot to trim the perimeter or features in the parts, and the parts that we particularly work on are parts made of plastic or fabric, non-woven materials, composites, and carbon fiber."
Fast cycle times for fast cars became an urgent need for KMT's customer Plasan USA (Bennington, VT), a manufacturer of custom carbon and fiberglass composite automotive components, when the company (formerly Vermont Composites), won a contract to develop front fenders for the Chevrolet Z06 Corvette. A supplier of automotive fenders, hoods, and roof panels for sports cars, the company needed a robotic system to dramatically shorten cycle times and contain the harmful dust created during the trimming process. In the past, Plasan manufactured the front fenders with hand-laid, autoclave-cured carbon/epoxy prepreg, and manually deflashed, trimmed, and drilled the parts—a process that took more than an hour.
KMT Robotic Solutions worked with Plasan to choose the best automated trimming method. In KMT's Process Solution Center, the companies evaluated abrasive waterjet and router trimming processes to determine which methods produced the best cut quality and fastest cycle time. Plasan decided KMT's RoboTrim robotic router trimming system and associated software tools offered the best solution. The enclosed system configuration kept operators out of the harsh, dust-filled trimming environment, while the ventilation and filtration system met environmental requirements and prevented the carbon-fiber dust from interfering with the trimming process.
When a fender is loaded into one of the two vacuum fixtures, the system's two-sided servocontrolled table rotates the part 180° into the enclosure in less than three seconds. The floor-mounted AccuTrim R-99 robot, equipped with a 3 hp (2.24-kW) spindle, uses a carbide router bit to process the holes and slots, and then changes to a similar bit to trim the perimeter. Once the part is trimmed, the table rotates the finished part to the outside of the enclosure as an untrimmed part is rotated inside the system.
The RoboTrim router trimming system can process a fender every 13 minutes, which is more than a 75% reduction in post-mold processing time. The system currently operates on three shifts, and is so successful that Plasan recently purchased an additional system. "We found the right tool combination to achieve superior edge quality without excessive tool wear," notes Dalton Blackwell, Plasan USA general manager. The company is now planning to expand its 45,000 ft2 (4185-m2) manufacturing facility, which produces carbon body parts for leading American sports cars and motorcycle components, including seats, fuel tanks, and wind deflectors.
Specialized software capabilities from KMT help its customers easily handle path-intensive trimming operations. As Fanuc Robotics' (Rochester Hills, MI) exclusive partner for waterjet trimming and nonmetallic routing in North America, KMT Robotic Solutions developed software packages including CamPro, an offline programming package that enables manufacturers to seamlessly convert CAM trimming and milling paths into complete six-axis robot programs. The software simulates the robot path offline, allowing programmers to check interference and arm configuration while the system is still in production.
KMT offers two versions of Cam-Pro, one that supports conversion of Mastercam programs and another that supports any CAM program that can be exported in .apt format. The software is designed for use with KMT's RoboTrim robotic routing systems, JetTool waterjet trimming systems, and RoboKnife ultrasonic-knife trimming systems. In addition to CamPro, KMT also developed its RouterWare software for routers and its JetWare package for waterjet trimming operations.
The software helps KMT set up path-intensive trimming and cutting processes for customers as efficiently as possible. "It's in the perspective of the part, that we're cutting continuous paths, then maybe stopping and moving to another area of the part and cutting a feature into it, a circle, square, rectangle, or slot," Zald explains. "We're trying to do that with very short cycle times—many times competing with a trim press that can stamp parts out very quickly but is very expensive to modify and expensive to build. Or we're competing with a CNC machine—expensive machine, hard to set up, and maybe you have to run a multitude of parts before you get a good one, as opposed to a robot, in which the first part off can be good with the software tools that we offer."
Improving production cycle times is key to improving manufacturing efficiency. "The reason that Fanuc is partnered with us is we've invested in the technology that goes into the system to improve its efficiency and effectiveness, and make more parts for the customer," she states. "We have some very specialized software tools that enable faster fixture changeovers between parts, that enable quicker recovery from a worn tool.
"You have to find where the tool center point for that new tool is so that when you make your next cut, if the tool's too short, you won't cut through the part; if the tool's too long, you might cut the fixture. A good tool center point is critical," Zald says. "And we have automated ways of doing that, whereas many other robot manufacturers and system integrators haven't really comprehended how to make the system efficient to run.
"The name of the game on capital equipment is fast changeovers. It's got to be like a pit stop. It's not everybody's running around running the machine, and then the machine turns off and everybody relaxes and has a coffee break. It's when the machine is down is when the flurry happens. Quick, we've got to get the machine back up—how do we change over to the next product the fastest way possible?"
Automated welding operations gain faster cycle times from a turnkey welding system offered by SmartTCP (Farmington Hills, MI), an integrator that specializes in highly complex, small-batch parts. With its SmartTCP Automatic Welding Solution, the company combines its PC-based software and integration expertise with hardware from partners including Kuka Robotics, Gudel, and Fronius.
"What SmartTCP is doing is very disruptive technology," says Applied Manufacturing Technologies' Campbell. "It has the potential to really reshape how we think about automation for low-volume, high-complexity products, which we really haven't pursued. The barrier's always been that the ratio of engineering to programming to the actual part production is so high. Truly those are the products that any of us who've been in the business for a long time tend to shy away from. We have for years."
"The software is the enabling technology here," notes Efi Lebel, SmartTCP founder and CEO. "We took very high-end components from Kuka, Gudel, and Fronius, and structured a solution for a new market which, up to this point, nobody served, which is those who are doing high-mix, low-volume production. Automation is mainly for very simple and repetitive operations—you can see it in automotive, in electronics, but you hardly find any automation for complex tasks in a small-batch production. The reason is, first of all, you need a very flexible machine, but second, to program this flexible machine can take you many weeks, and you have to manufacture your product; it does not make any economic sense to spend weeks programming."
With SmartTCP's system, the integrated, flexible robotic welding machines can be scaled to fit applications. NPK Construction Equipment Inc. (NPK, Walton Hills, OH), a manufacturer of heavy machinery equipment for the construction, demolition and mining industries, builds attachments for equipment used in its customer's processes. In recent years, sales and production has grown exponentially, and NPK's manual welding process was experiencing growing pains. The company's staff of master welders were taxed by the increase in demand, and the decrease in availability of expert welders, so it turned to SmartTCP for a solution.
"As we conducted our research, it was apparent that there was a lack of adequate fast automatic programming options that would minimize our down time," says Dan Tyrrell, NPK Construction Equipment Inc. president. "We needed a solution that could reliably weld all of our large complex parts quickly and accurately with minimal robot programming time required."
The SmartTCP Automatic Welding Solution automates both the robot programming and weld production. The system is a combination of hardware and software, and features a flexible and modular working envelope that allows the manufacturer to weld any weldable part. Its software is SmartTCP's package that automates the complex and tedious robot programming tasks to create a flexible welding cell.
Offering multiple axes gives the system the necessary flexibility to weld parts that differ in size, geometry, and required welding technologies. The base SmartTCP system has nine axes (six robot axes and three gantry axes) with additional manipulators adding one or two axes as needed, up to as many as 16 axes in two or more working zones. The system's best use is in an 11-axis configuration in each working zone for in-position continuous welding that results in a higher-quality, faster welding process.
Startup systems integrator Confero Solutions Inc. (King of Prussia, PA) offers advanced precision sensing and motion solutions targeted at the machine tool, metrology, life sciences, and semiconductor industries. The company aims to provide cutting-edge solutions in the fields of optical sensing, motion control, and robotics, with highly engineered precision mechatronic and optotronic systems, notes David Beatson, Confero president.
In today's markets, many OEM companies don't have access to or can't afford to maintain the level of resources and technology required to custom-design and build effective, complex systems to satisfy customer requirements, according to Beatson. "In many situations, it's difficult for them to design or even locate all the necessary system and subsystem technologies, let alone pull them together into advanced, automated solutions," explained Beatson. "That's where we excel."
Founded in 2006, Confero has 20 employees and a 12,000 ft2 (1100-m2) facility that includes assembly, test, and light manufacturing. In being a systems integrator, it is often difficult to point to specific accomplishments, Beatson states. "Our problem is that a lot of the programs we have underway are covered under NDA, because it'll be buried somewhere in our customer's equipment. That tends to be more of our model, building a sensing element and integrating it into a motion system for a company, or building a motion system and integrating it into our customer's equipment."
Compared to semiconductors, many of the other industries targeted by Confero have a lot of room for maturing high-end automation systems, notes Beatson, the former chief technology officer for Kulicke & Sossa, an equipment and tools manufacturer in the semiconductor industry. "Other markets— machine tools, metrology, and life sciences specifically—have not really matured in this direction. They're still potentially in their infancy, and by taking some of the technologies that were developed and matured in the semiconductor industry and optimizing them for one of these sector's specific requirements, they can potentially improve the throughput and perhaps even the precision of their equipment.
"Many of the applications that we see tend to be, 'We want to do something like this.' Then we visit, talk, and really begin to understand what they're really driving at. So maybe the camera wasn't quite what they wanted to put on there," adds Beatson. "Or maybe another optical sensing device would do a better job at a lower cost, or be more robust. We tend to back up and look at the system's requirements in detail, not just from the specification that they send us.
"System builders that understand the customer's system requirements could possibly produce a whole different solution that's completely outside the box for the customer, and we don't have any constraints with respect to a customer solution. We have some talented people in vision, control, and motion systems design, so we really don't have any barriers to what we could potentially offer."
To date, Confero has offered customers solutions in vision and motion systems design, as well as integrated systems that take advantage of the company's expertise in sensing and motion control. "Put a camera on something and suddenly your world changes, if you do it correctly, your ability to machine a part or place a component improves," Beatson states. "We've had companies come to us and say, 'We've got a sub-micron positioning requirement; how are we going to do that in a really harsh environment?' So we've come up with some really out-of-the-box solutions for them."
This article was first published in the January 2008 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.