If you haven’t tested abrasives in the past five years, you haven’t tested abrasives.
So asserted Mike Shappell, senior application engineer for Norton | Saint-Gobain Abrasives, Worcester, Mass., in assessing the industry’s general understanding of deburring and finishing. As with other well-established aspects of manufacturing, the end-of-line processes for refining parts into their finished state could always use a fresh look.
Automated finishing for labor-starved shops that need to dramatically increase throughput is vital. And as the production of 3D printed parts grows, the unique benefits of centrifugal barrel finishing are proving to be an ideal complement.
Combining education about emerging abrasives and automated finishing solutions, the new Norton Abrasive Process Solutions (APS) robot lab in Northborough, Mass. is poised to provide invaluable process development expertise when it opens in January.
Driven by a wealth of insight into emerging customer needs, the Norton | Saint-Gobain Abrasive Process Solutions Program will include “the most advanced robotic-centered process development system in North America,” explained Shappell. It is “probably the biggest program that we’ve done for many years in terms of being able to offer solutions for end users in almost any part of our catalog, ranging from metal fabricating to precision grinding, and supporting coated and bonded abrasives, super abrasives and thin-wheel applications.”
Having recently visited numerous shops in the Midwest, Shappell can attest to the urgency manufacturers feel to find automated solutions to escalating workloads and diminishing staff.
“I made four stops in Wisconsin,” he said, and “every one of them had a giant banner out front that said, ‘We’re hiring.’ And when I asked whether they wanted me to improve their abrasives or make their process faster, every one of them said, ‘We’ve got to go faster. I’m working six days a week; I can’t get people, I can’t keep people. What I pay for my abrasives is not critical—tell me I can double my output, or increase it by 25 percent or whatever you can give me—I have to get more out of what I’ve got or I’m in trouble.’ ”
Showing shops how to get more work out the door will be the core function of the Abrasive Process Solutions Lab, which will demonstrate to manufacturers how to get the most out of existing equipment or choose the right new equipment.
At the lab’s core is its system based on a FANUC R-2000iC with 210 kg payload. The system showcases three approaches to using any of Norton’s abrasives:
Prior to the lab’s scheduled January opening, Norton has been running manual labs or collaborating with integrators to stage learning sessions. And the lab’s opening couldn’t come at a more critical time. “The automation industry is at a point I have never seen it in–the need is growing exponentially,” Shappell concluded.
The father-and-son team of Eric and Adam Mutschler of Ohio’s Cleveland Deburring Machine Co. can attest to the automation fascination among its customers.
Aerospace, for instance, is switching from hand deburring of some items to more automation to leave tolerances within two-thousandths of an inch, Eric Mutschler noted. The company’s machines are used on gears, turbine blades, turbine wheels and more. Added Adam, “everybody wants things to be automated; they don’t want variation in results whether the parts are visual or functional. They don’t want one part that’s been heavily deburred and then one that has not.”
Meanwhile, the shift in automotive focus from internal combustion engine to electric vehicles has meant some transition in the company’s portfolio.
“Over the past 10 or 15 years, we had a cornerstone machine with a magnetic conveyor and two, four or eight brush heads,” Adam explained. “A flat part that is magnetic would be deburred on one or both faces, including a lot of combustion engine components. With more vehicles going to electric, people aren’t wanting to invest in a whole new design of a gas engine, so that business slowed. We’re still doing a lot of automotive, but not as much of that type of part, which at its peak was about 20 percent of our business.”
Cleveland Deburring’s machines are also used for a fuel-cell system in the energy industry, as well as for medical components like bone screws and tools for tapping into bone.
Heavy truck transportation is another area where automation is coming to the fore, Eric noted, for components like gears and axles. “Lights-out cells and machines adjust without operator input.” Those customers “want to type the part number into a machine and press the button,” Adam added. “We have to factor in anything that has to adjust or change itself and also control and monitor wear on the brushes or whatever medium they’re using. They want alarms and tool counters; they want to know how many parts they’re making and how often they change over.”
Cleveland Deburring customizes many of its customers’ platforms, using its applications lab to run sample parts through its machines and adjusting variables like grit or cycle times. “We’ll take videos and pictures and send back a part with an application report,” Adam explained. “Sometimes we’ll just get printed specs for a part because our customer is just quoting the work and doesn’t know how bad the burrs are going to be.”
For automating the finishing of high-end materials and components in aerospace, the company employs robots in its systems. “Sometimes we’ll have tool changers on the end of the robot,” Adam said. “In some cases, we use multiple tools on the same part. A chamfering process might leave a residual burr that you remove with a brush. You might polish another surface.”
The company also began using brushes from Xebec, Adam added. “It’s basically a ceramic fiber, almost like glass. It’s a little more aggressive as far as cutting hard-to-machine materials. It’s more closely related to a cutting tool than a brush. We also use ceramic-nylon abrasive brushes. We’ve been using smaller-diameter brushes on the ends of the robots, which lets you get a lot more done.”
Another new tool the company employs are microscope camera measuring systems “because we need to measure some parts to make sure they’re within a specific range or else customers are scrapping a $3,000 part.”
Among the spectrum of deburring and finishing tools, centrifugal barrel finishing (CBF) is the kinder, gentler and quicker option for most parts, explained Gary Warwick, business development manager for United Surface Solutions of Santa Fe Springs, Calif.
CBF is “many times faster than a vibratory or tumbling machine. Customers are demanding better finishes, faster throughputs, and more consistent results from their deburring processes,” he said. “Our machines are much gentler than vibratory or tumbler machines because of the high G forces they generate. High G forces speed up processes and equalize pressure. Equalized pressure virtually eliminates damage to parts, resulting in phenomenal finishes at a fraction of the cost and time.”
With CBF, too, comes labor savings, Warwick added. “We’ve had applications where they were able to go from 20 individuals in the deburring department to fewer than five, which is a drastic cut to labor cost.”
Part of that labor savings derives from the automation built in to CBF equipment. “Our machines are built with automation at their core; we don’t have robots,” Warwick explained. “Instead of one person deburring one part, one operator can deburr large quantities of parts per cycle. Process parameters can be recalled from the touchscreen, which loads the presets to the point where an operator only needs to press ‘start.’ In addition to ease of use, automation increases precision over many processes. While manual deburring yields inconsistent results and uncontrolled material removal from one minute to the next, CBFs provide consistency and control to processes, yielding the same results every time.”
Another way United machines come into play is ”their ability to clean coolant and grease off parts without any type of pretreatment,” Warwick added. “When a part comes off a mill or lathe, the part is usually covered in coolant or grease. A natural byproduct of using our machines is that parts come out of the deburring process clean—which is somewhat unique to our machine because there’s always soap being used to keep solids and debris in suspension. Machined parts often have chips and coolant on them; throw them in our machine and they come out cleaned, deburred, and even polished.”
Of late, United’s CBF machines have risen to the occasion with the steady increase in 3D printed parts.
“3D printed parts have created a big market for us, one that is growing astronomically,” Warwick said. “There is no better way to provide a uniform finish on a thin-wall 3D printed part than our CBFs. If someone’s grinding or belting a printed part manually, it’s susceptible to breaking through. We mostly see large growth in 3D printed metal parts, but also encounter general and thermoformed plastics. When we started supplying the 3D market, we couldn’t anticipate how big the market would be, especially for dental corrective devices; it has become a steadily growing percentage of our business. The 3D world is a fascinating market because it’s evolving so quickly and it’s becoming mainstream; we are glad to have been there in the early days.”
Ultimately, Warwick said, CBF is prized by “users looking for consistency and speed as well as fine finishes; these are probably the three areas that draw most of our customers. Beyond that would be ability to generate polished finishes on hard-to-polish materials like titanium and precious metals.”
Connect With Us