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Sharpening the Point of Attack of Automation on the Shop Floor

Jim Lorincz
By Jim Lorincz Contributing Editor, SME Media

On machine, near the machine, between machines—the IIoT is never far away

Flexibility has come to automation, perhaps as never before. And for industries that require precision machining, assembly, and measurement, automation technologies have never been more available.

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The newest addition to the Epson portfolio of robots, the entry-level Synthis T3 All-in-One SCARA (selective compliance articulated robot arm), was introduced at a price point ($7495) and with capabilities of speed and precision intended to further expand Epson’s applications in automotive, electronics, medical devices, and consumer products.

Automation solutions range from the highest precision to production-tested dependability and speed. Almost never are technologies represented as being all things to all people, or more properly all solutions to all problems. It isn’t a case of pick your poison, it’s more one of selecting the most appropriate technology and being able to justify the ROI. Tried and true automation like barfeeders, gantry loaders, simplified pick and place options are never too far from the forefront, but they are being joined by and eclipsed in many cases by new, faster robotic technologies that have the benefit of the versatility that IIoT digital communication can bring to manufacturing.

Precision in Watch Making Led to Scores of Robots

According to Rick Brookshire, group product manager, robots for Epson America Inc. (Carson City, CA), when its parent company, Seiko Epson Corp., developed robots for manufacturing its own watches some 35 years ago, precision was everything. Today, Epson combines speed with precision in its offering of more than 300 robots in sizes ranging from 175 to 1000 mm in reach, with payloads up to 20 kg, and repeatability down to 5 μm. Typical first applications included parts that could fit in your hand for automotive, medical, electronics and functions including assembly, machine tending, kitting, inspection and test, and palletizing in virtually every kind of industry.

The newest addition to the Epson portfolio of robots, the entry-level Synthis T3 All-in-One SCARA (selective compliance articulated robot arm), was introduced at a price point and with capabilities of speed and precision intended to further expand Epson’s applications in automotive, electronics, medical devices, and consumer products.

Since its introduction in late 2017, the T3 has found acceptance by the market place beyond our wildest expectations,” said Brookshire. “The T3 has a controller contained inside the arm, connection to a PC for programming—all at a price of $7495. It features the same software that we use in our high-end G series six-axis robots.”

Like Epson’s other SCARA robots, the T3 is a four-axis robot that will stage from a flat surface to a flat surface and has been positioned as an alternative to linear slides in the shop. “Linear slides have to be adjusted continually for changeovers,” said Brookshire. The T3, with a 400 mm arm and maximum payload of 3 kg, satisfies this need for flexibility with speed for efficient operation, integration in a compact design, and Epson’s RC+ programming software.

Robot Efficiency in Compact Packages

Erowa Technology Inc. (Arlington Heights, IL) has a history of developing palletization systems and robots to handle tools and workpieces for EDM processing, as well as machine tending applications for chip making in tandem or in combination with EDM machines. “A job shop does something different every day. That’s our forte: putting a workpiece on a pallet and into a magazine and letting a robot move it inside the machine for processing—whether it’s for one, two or five parts,” said Chris Norman, president and COO. “We’re in a niche market and our automation is designed for job shops, die mold shops, and short-run aerospace manufacturing shops, to name a few.”

Demand for Erowa’s automation products has been strong. “There’s greater acceptance by shops for automation solutions today. We have experienced growth in automation sales of 10 to 20% over 2017, which was up some 30% over 2016,” said Norman. “We’re not just the EDM guys anymore, although we still do a lot in electrode manufacturing and handling. Our tooling is being used in many different facets of manufacturing. Our quick-change system between our pallets and our chucks and tool changers for cutting tools and electrode changers on an EDM are a form of automation that a lot of companies don’t think about.”

Programming for its robots has been simplified, according to Norman. “Our robots aren’t difficult to program. There are different levels of integration. The most basic is that the robot is the slave of the machine. We have done all the interface work and have interfaces with all the major OEMs. When we come to install, we call the pallet into the machine the same way you call a spindle into the machine. It’s basically one line of code. We have a cell control software that manages the machine and robot rather than the machine’s control. Typically we only need about a days-worth of training with the customers,” said Norman.

The Shop Floor Is a Busy Place

The newest EDMs from Makino Inc. (Mason, OH) feature automation for untended operation. Support comes from HyperConnect, Makino’s suite of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) applications for EDMs that enhances user experience and efficiency, and reduces machine downtime. Available on all Makino EDMs equipped with Hyper-i control systems, HyperConnect enables shop managers and operators to monitor and control EDM processes from any PC, smart device, or other Hyper-i control systems on the network.

EDM operators are already faced with too much on the shop floor. The last thing anyone wants is having them running back and forth between machines and office spaces. HyperConnect provides these operators with accessibility to what they need to maximize efficiency, whether they are at the machine, in their office or working remotely.

The HyperConnect suite has four primary connectivity features for shop personnel to monitor, plan and troubleshoot their EDM operations. Of the four functions, EDM Mail and PC Viewer functions are the most commonly used. EDM Mail relays machine status information to operators via email during unattended operation to help reduce downtime and support multitasking abilities. It can deliver periodic, timed interval updates of a machine’s operating conditions, or alert operators of a machine stoppage at any hour.

Interlinking Processes Just an Idea Away

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Method Machine Tools’ automation system utilizes a FANUC Robot to transfer metal 3D printed parts between a FANUC RoboCut and RoboDrill.

When technology offered by a machine tool builder crosses over into otherwise unrelated processes, automation can provide the unexpected productive link. Methods Machine Tools Inc. (Sudbury, MA), a supplier of machine tools, 3D printing technology, and automation, took a “quantum leap” by combining the processes to increase production in 3D manufacturing. The automation cell combines additive manufacturing with robotics and subtractive processes with the objective of providing post processing for fast, highly efficient finished 3D part production.

The 20-ft. (6-m) Methods cell includes a 3D-printed product in-feeding station, which shuttles 3D parts on build plates into a FANUC C600 EDM that makes a cut to partially separate the parts from the build plates. In the next station, a FANUC robot snaps the plates from the printed parts, and transfers the parts to a FANUC RoboDrill for a final machining operations. Robodrills are especially favored in shop floor environments for their self-contained and compact automation footprint. Engineered for lights-out manufacturing, the cell reduces the overall time to complete parts from 3D printing to final post-processing, reportedly quadrupling total part throughput while eliminating manual labor. Methods Machine’s 3D printing partner is 3D Systems Corp. (Rock Hill, SC), the originator of 3D printing.

Smart Manufacturing Means IIoT Connectivity

Two machine tool builders, Mazak Corp. (Florence, KY) and Murata Machinery USA Inc. (Charlotte, NC), have collaborated to develop a smart manufacturing system by combining Mazak’s machining, automation and smart technologies with the Muratec automated high-density storage and retrieval system. The resulting Mazatec SMS (smart manufacturing system) provides untended, lights-out manufacturing and high output as well as IIoT connectivity.

The Mazatec SMS pairs multiple Mazak horizontal machining centers and/or multitasking machines with a Muratec vertically-orientated stocker-type system that has pallets, a material bucket and high-speed stocker crane. To match each manufacturer’s specific production and floor space needs, the modular system can have up to 150 stockers (in different sizes) in a six-level configuration that increases space efficiency significantly.

Mazak’s SmartBox IIoT technology and Smooth PMC production management software are key components of the SMS. Muratec’s automated system controls all interconnect and synchronizes with a manufacturer’s ERP/MRP host and MES. As a result, the Mazatec SMS is designed to become a smart factory solution for process control, monitoring and optimization to produce a variety of workpieces—even in small lot sizes—with high efficiency. The Mazatec SMS can incorporate various sizes and types of machine tools into the same automated manufacturing system. Peripheral equipment for the Mazatec SMS includes individual stations for loading and centering, tilt loading, raise and lower loading, work setup and part washing. In addition to keeping the machine tools supplied with work, the system’s stocker crane handles the Mazatec SMS overall input of raw parts and the output of finished ones.

Automation Depends on Software, IIoT Focus

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Shop Floor Automations’ advanced technologies are working with protocols such as MTConnect, OPC UA, Okuma Thinc, Modbus, FANUC FOCAS.

Shop Floor Automations (SFA; La Mesa, CA) specializes in manufacturing automation software that supplies shops with machine monitoring, CNC networking (DNC software), tool tracking, and production data management. “Our advanced technologies work with protocols such as MTConnect, OPC UA, Okuma Thinc, Modbus, and FANUC FOCAS,” said Guy Barrow, account executive. “Our solutions are successful for CNC machine shops, fabrication shops, moldmaking shops, and any shop that has to do with the manufacturing process. Shops include those making [high volumes of aerospace parts, medical parts, firearms, and automotive parts, as well as combination production/job shops.”

According to Barrow, SFA’s customers want to eliminate old media on the shop floor without replacing their machines. They are going wireless and replacing floppy disk drives. “While program transfers and CNC revision control are needed, I would say machine monitoring is popular for us right now. Machine efficiency is very important to customers. We have engineers on hand to customize solutions that fit the needs of the customer’s production concerns. Shops want to invest in Industry 4.0 and IIoT standards, so that has a positive effect on our product mix. We always test new solutions to solve the issues for customers of alternative program transfer communication/management methods, increasing machine utilization, revision control, going paperless, and better audit prep. It also helps them take on other goals, such as ISO certification, lights-out manufacturing, and integrating with other solutions, like ERP software.”

Small Scale Automation with Big Capability

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Overview of Liebherr automation system

A combination of machining centers with pallet handling systems has proven to be good for an automation system for small-scale series down to batch sizes of one. For that reason, Liebherr Automation Systems Co. (Kempten, Germany; and Saline, MI) has expanded its automation product offering with the PHS Allround. Goals of the intelligent automation system are higher efficiency and simple operation independent of the size and weight of the part. The system shifts the setup of the workpieces from the machine to a separate setup station and stores the pre-fitted workpieces in an intermediate storage area. The pre-fitted workpieces stored in the system compensate for short and long machine run times, and allow shifts with very little or even no manpower at all, which in turn allows unit prices to be optimized by up to 20%.

Liebherr developed the compact class PHS Allround for universal users. According to the company, the PHS Allround closes the gap between Liebherr’s entry-level RLS rotary loading system solution and the individually configurable PHS Pro pallet handling system. The PHS Allround pallet handling system allows a large group of users to move into flexible production in combination with four- and five-axis machining centers. The new modular concept in three weight classes for loads up to three tons is flexible and can be individually configured and expanded. This corresponds to pallet sizes of 500 x 500 mm to 1000 x 1000 mm.

Custom Automation Targets Secondary Ops for AR-15 Barrel Extension Part Manufacturing Cell

Hydromat, a name synonymous with high-volume production on the shop floor, has engineered and built a custom in-process cell to eliminate additional handling and secondary operations for a barrel extension part for the popular AR-15 style rifle. Previously, this part would have been produced on multiple machines.

The solution was provided with Hydromat’s EPIC machine technology with added automation and machining processes. The engineering team at Hydromat came up with a process that would do the job without any operations outside the cell—from raw bar stock to completed part.

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Hydromat’s engineered solution includes an exit from the Hydromat EPIC machine into a custom-integrated Op 20 broach/coin/deburr four-station transfer process cell before returning to the Hydromat machine for Op 30 part completion. Broach (above); Coin (left)

Hydromat engineers proposed a Barrel Extension OP 10 / 20 /30 production cell process. This solution includes an exit from the Hydromat EPIC machine into a custom-integrated Op 20 broach/coin/de-burr four-station transfer process cell before returning to the Hydromat machine for Op 30 part completion. During the machining process, the part is removed from the machine, broached in a separate cell, and then returned to the rotary transfer process to be finished. The EPIC 32/45-16 rotary transfer machine includes full integration with robot automation and an Op 20 cell.

OP 10 starts with a bundle bar feeder that feeds the bar into a collet and cut-off at station one. The part blank is moved from stations two through eight with specific machining processes at each for the features on the first side of the part. At the EPIC machine’s station nine, the part is extracted with the first FANUC robot from the collet and placed in an open position on the feed tray in the Op 20 process cell. The second robot picks the part with one of the Schunk double jaws and places it into the jaw at position one of the table within the cell.

After laser verification of position, the part is transferred to the second station. The part is extracted from the jaw by a pneumatic transfer system and placed into the broach process position where the broaching machine does its job.

Ty Miles Inc. (Westchester, IL) supplied the broaching machine and tooling for the operation. Once the broaching is completed, the pneumatic transfer system relocates the part in the jaw before it is whisked to the third position for coining.

The part is then transferred to the fourth position for a final deburr broach step before returning to position one to be unloaded and placed into an open position in the unload tray. From this position the part is returned to the Hydromat EPIC machine for Op 30 in stations 9H to 16H for machining of features on the second side of the part. Once complete, another FANUC robot extracts the completed barrel extension part from the collet and places it on a conveyor belt for removal. With a 15.0 second cycle time, the process yields 240 parts-per-hour production from bar stock to completion of required machining of the part. After heat treating, a grinding process readies the part for the marketplace.

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