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How to Automate to Efficiency Without Sacrificing Agility

Matt Tyler
By Matt Tyler CEO, Red Rabbit Automation

There is no shortage of competition in a global market. As a manufacturer trying to get ahead of the pack, automation can help with problems like a limited skilled labor force, quality control issues and suboptimal throughput. But the high initial cost and extended implementation time can be deterrents.

These barriers have traditionally limited automation to high-volume, long-lifespan parts, leaving makers of lower-volume parts operating manually to allow for flexibility at the cost of efficiency.

But barriers are falling. Industrial robots are improving in terms of cost, functionality and usability, letting manufacturers automate more of their production with economically viable solutions.

As more and more manufacturers take their first step into automation, working with a trusted systems integrator is critical to success far beyond the first robot. Integrators are not only machine builders but also educators and partners that should understand the end goal of the production. They set a culture and philosophy of automation on customers’ floors.

Vickers Engineering is a precision machine shop that has been automating many of its cells for longer than 10 years. After investing heavily in an automated cell to produce parts for the oil and gas industry, the market fell off and demand went with it. With equipment sitting idle, Vickers Engineering tasked Red Rabbit Automation with creating a robotic automation cell that wasn’t tied to production of a single part or machine.

The multifaceted problem:

  • Long design time
  • Long implementation time
  • High non-recoupable investment in engineering design
  • Effectiveness limited to single part or family

The solution had to be a cost effective and highly flexible piece of capital equipment that could be quickly and easily moved, retooled and redeployed—a tall order with the potential of enormous upside.

The Redeployable Robot concept was created as the Swiss Army knife of robotic machine tending and assembly.

The modular design significantly reduces the design and build costs. The standard frame is configured with drawers, conveyors or cameras to introduce and exit parts from the cell. Hanging the robot upside down allows part-handling and secondary operations to be performed in a smaller footprint. Because the cell is self-contained, excluding the machines it’s servicing, the Redeployable Robot can be moved into position without having to start programming from scratch, greatly reducing implementation times.

Vickers Engineering took delivery of a RR70m, a machine tending cell with a 70kg carrying capacity robot. Vickers is now able to deploy an automated cell in a fraction of the time, and isn’t confined to automating a single product or in front of a single machine. By teaching the robot new points and retooling the grippers, drawers and part stands, the Redeployable Robot can run a new part with minimal cost and time invested.

The ability to quickly retool to run many parts is particularly valuable for deburring, finishing and polishing applications due to the high mix typically seen.

Physically demanding and potentially hazardous work can now be done economically with a robot while improving speed and consistency.

The modularity of the Redeployable Robot also allows for erector set building of an assembly line. The idea is to attack the bottleneck one step at a time until the whole line is automated—without a single massive capital investment. And when the product life is complete, the robots can be redeployed as a line or individually broken off to service cells without the waste of traditional automation.

The future is about creating pieces of capital equipment that operate efficiently for a single part but can then be easily reconfigured to operate just as efficiently for another. With the advent of mass customization, equipment that flexes with the shop as volumes shift is absolutely essential.

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