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The Future of Robotics in CNC Grinding

Pat Boland
By Pat Boland Co-Founder, ANCA Inc.

The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) in 2016 showed unit sales figures in 2015 up 15% on the year before, reaching an all-time high of 253,748. Since 2010, technical improvements in robots and automation have turbocharged investment, according to the report. Plus, double digit percentage growth is predicted to continue every year up to 2019.

ANCA developed its own low-cost robotic solution for tool loading, designed to operate within the machine tool work area. The three-axis ANCA robot has a capacity of 380 tools and accommodates tool sizes up to 20 mm in diameter x 150 mm long.

However, within CNC machining robotics, applications have been dominated by machine tending. Overall, the benefits enjoyed by industrial users of robots—such as accuracy, productivity and capacity utilization—have been under-realized by machine tool users. According to 2012 IFR research, only 1.5% of machine tools were being automated in conjunction with robots. But this trend is shifting, with robots becoming affordable and easy to program, making the technology more accessible. ANCA reports that since 2014 the number of customers ordering CNC grinding machines with robot loaders has increased from 10 to 50% of machines sold.

As the pace of change picks up, other improvements have meant robotics have greater capabilities and more flexible applications in the grinding process. With increased capability, automated loading applications have been followed by wheel pack changes and now newer possibilities.

Adding Capability

A recent innovation has been ANCA’s multi-robot production cell. It works by having a larger robot devoted to wheel pack changes and part loading, while a second, smaller robot is free to “multi-task” other operations within the cell. This opens a whole range of machining possibilities as one CNC grinder can essentially become a flexible manufacturing cell.

Because of its multi-function capability, this ANCA TXcell solution, for a turbine blade manufacturing operation, produces more parts per hour complete than the machines it replaces. After grinding, the cell solution also detects part numbers, inspects, cleans and laser-marks each part. The first part of the solution was automatic part handling of the turbine blades for unmanned production. ANCA designed a two-piece fixture to hold the turbine blade that could be automatically loaded by a large robot. The loading of blades into the fixtures was achieved with the addition of a second (smaller) robot to the TXcell. The original large robot changes wheel packs and loads the fixture and blade together into the grinding machine.

Customers that have already invested in this technology find that having two robots in one manufacturing cell has been successful in managing components that are difficult to hold,
such as turbine blades and knee joints. In these examples, the smaller robot loaded the parts into a fixture and the larger robot loaded the fixture into the machine.

Another application made possible by having dual robots is running two processes at the same time. For example, the large robot can load wheel packs and parts into the machine while the smaller robot undertakes secondary operations such as metrology, laser etching, or part washing at the same time the main component is being ground.

Obvious Benefits

Enabling multiple manufacturing operations on a single machine cell has obvious benefits, such as reduced capital equipment, better productivity and reduced work in progress (WIP) and inventory.

Traditionally, many grinding machine users were turned off by the amount of training required to use robots with grinding machines. As a result, ANCA developed software packages that simplified what had been complex requirements. Cutting the task from several hours to under 30 minutes, the RoboTeach enables an unskilled operator to program the Fanuc LR Mate 200iD loader used on the RoboMate Loader.

Using a touch probe (held in the robot gripper), a sphere (held in the machine work head), and the grinding machine’s built-in high positional accuracy, RoboTeach guides an operator through the calibration process. The RoboMate loader means an operator needs training on only a single automation system. Loading parameters, such as tool pick-up height, or collet insertion depth, are controlled by the RoboMate software which can run multiple tool types within a pallet.

Cutting Edge Becomes Standard

The CNC market has seen that what initially seems like a cutting-edge product capability becomes a standard over time as technology is refined. Within CNC grinding, expanded capabilities within robotics and automation solutions are combining to make the future an exciting one.

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