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Cobot Fuels Plastics Manufacturer’s Growth

Jim Lorincz
By Jim Lorincz Contributing Editor, SME Media
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Pride Solutions’ CNC machinist, Chris Klenke, quickly mastered the Minnesota plastic manufacturer’s new cobot-fed turning center and was able to proficiently program the UR10 cobot after only two days of training.

Step inside Pride Solutions LLC’s bustling shop floor in Hutchinson, MN, and you’ll see a shiny new CNC lathe turning out tube after tube of aluminum. While Pride’s machinists do more important things, a Universal Robot model UR10 collaborative robot (cobot) does the grunt work, loading and unloading the machine to keep up with high-volume orders. Within a couple of hours, these parts will be over-molded in UHMW (ultra high molecular weight) polyethylene and shipped off to a customer.

The cobot and turning center are new additions for this growing plastics manufacturer. Pride Solutions invested in the technology to bring a large contract manufacturing job completely in-house and quickly discovered more and more applications to keep the system making chips well into the evening.

Pride Solutions is a plastics manufacturer specializing in UHMW-PE. The company has 27 employees and includes four collaborative divisions headquartered in a 25,000 ft2 (2,322-m2) manufacturing facility: May Wes, a supplier of UHMW poly agricultural components; C&A Pro performance snowmobile skis; Pride Engineered Plastics, a contract manufacturer specializing in UHMW-PE; and Pride Assembly, a turnkey supplier of custom electro-mechanical assembly services.

With business booming at C&A Pro and May Wes and contract manufacturing and assembly work on the upswing, Pride’s 27 employees are equally adept at recommending skis and carbides to snowmobilers and helping farmers select Stalk Stompers for their combine corn heads.

This diversification keeps the small, family-owned business hopping throughout the year, but no time is busier than September, when the fall harvest coincides with “Hay Days,” the world’s largest snowmobiling event and official kickoff to the snowmobile season. In that month, Pride’s contract manufacturing and assembly customers rush to get year-end orders completed.

Pride’s employees have always been up to the task, thanks to a strong spirit of teamwork and core values that put the customer first, but with business soaring and labor in short supply, the company needed automation to set the stage for future expansion.

“Initially we were going to automate the lathe with a bar feeder, but our machine tool dealer Al Dulas from Hales Machine Tool suggested that we take a look at collaborative robots,” said Jack Daggett, Pride Solutions president. “They set us up with BRAAS Robotics to facilitate the integration, and the cobot was less expensive than a feeder and takes up a lot less space. Plus, it’s much more versatile.”

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UR10 robot selected by BRAAS Robotics for Pride Solutions’ cobot-fed turning center. Photo courtesy BRAAS Robotics

Relatively new to U.S. manufacturers, “cobots” or collaborative robots have been used in manufacturing in Europe for 10 years, compared to just five years in the US, said Bob Phipps, cobot sales specialist for BRAAS Robotics (Eden Prairie, MN), a division of Motion Industries. The BRAAS Robotics team is a group within BRAAS that focuses on turnkey collaborative robot installations for customers like Pride Solutions that are new to cobot applications.

“Cobot use really jumped in Europe and North America once safety standards defined clear rules for manufacturers and users [ISO 10218 and ANSI/RIA 15.06],” Phipps said. “The growth in North America started after the release of the ANSI/RIA 15.06 robot safety standard in 2013. For over 50 years, robots have been guarded, so it has taken time for users to adapt to a new way of thinking. Collaborative robot applications are just about doubling every year, so users are starting to consider them common.”

The cobot was an instant success for Pride Solutions, said Ben Wick, the company’s plant manager. “With the addition of the robot, we saw an immediate increase in our capacity,” he said. “We’ve been able to run the system untended on our second shift, giving us roughly 2,000 hours of increased shift capacity without having to hire a second shift operator. Plus, during our day shift, the robot has freed up our machinist from the mundane task of loading and unloading the lathe so he can work on other projects.”

This success story comes as no surprise to BRAAS’s Phipps, whose team supported Pride Solutions’ turnkey cobot deployment with site visits, proof-of-concept evaluations, system design, build and installation, robot programming, end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) build and risk assessment, training and ongoing support.

“We always enjoy working with first-time customers,” Phipps said. “They usually begin with a perception that a robot solution has to be expensive, complex and consume a lot of plant floor space. They are amazed that many applications can be solved by a single robot on a pedestal with no guarding around it.”

Pride Solutions’ application was the perfect fit for a cobot, Phipps noted. “Any operator task that tends to be tedious, repetitive and potentially harmful is well-suited for collaborative robots,” he said. “Cobots typically match the reach and speed of an operator for basic pick-and-place applications. Machine tending and test stands are perfect examples where you have an operator load a part, wait for a task to complete and unload a part. These are the easier applications that customers usually do for their first applications just because they can use a single end-of-arm tool. Assembly applications can also be done, but those applications are typically more complex because of the multiple tasks and multiple tools involved.”

“You hear it a lot that people are worried that robots are going to take their jobs, but our robot actually created a skilled machinist position,” Daggett said. “Without the robot, we would not have been able to hire Chris Klenke, a 12-year veteran machinist. Plus it expanded his technical knowledge by learning how to program a collaborative robot.”

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UR10 collaborative robot unloading the turning center at Pride Solutions was less expensive than a barfeeder, takes up a lot less space and is more versatile, according to the company.

Klenke started at Pride Solutions in 2017. His previous experience included running CNC lathes, CNC horizontal machining centers and vertical machining centers. He had never worked with a cobot. After two days of training, Klenke could proficiently program the robot. Within two weeks, he had mastered the new lathe and robot. “The robot is simple to operate,” said Klenke. “It was easier than I thought it was going to be.”

The robot also provides an important safety benefit, Daggett noted. “A robot can load and unload parts all day without ergonomic strain,” Daggett said. “Also, with the sensors built into the robot to ensure safe operation, we don’t need a cage around it, which reduces the footprint.”

In the very near future, expect to see more advanced cobots working with their human counterparts, Phipps predicted.

For more information about Pride Solutions, go to www.pridesolutions.us or phone 320-587-0760; about BRAAS Robotics, go to www.braasrobotics.com or phone 800-288-6628; about Hales Machine Tool, go to www.halesmachinetool.com or phone 763-553-1711.

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