Automation was once only for big factories, but now small job shops can benefit as well
Automating job shops is accelerating, driven by the combined influence of Industry 4.0, the continued shortage of skilled manufacturing labor and the COVID pandemic.
The availability of more customized robotic and material conveyance options than ever is helping smaller manufacturers produce more while moving operators to more value-added tasks. The surging demand for personal protective equipment (PPE), coupled with a need to protect workers, has also ramped up shops’ automation efforts.
The benefits of automation, clearly amplified during the pandemic, were summarized neatly by Courtney Ortner, chief marketing officer for Lorain, Ohio-based Absolute Machine Tools: “With the use of cobots (collaborative robots), you have a work partner and you don’t have to worry about social distancing. Also, many shops are losing workers to quarantine, so this allows a shop to continue to run even with the loss of staff. And we can’t forget lights-out manufacturing capabilities are more common because of the use of automation; even with a cobot, you can set a job up on a Friday night and by Monday morning it’s done—oftentimes allowing you to be ahead of your production cycle.”
March of the Cobots
Robots are often the first thing people think of when the topic turns to automated manufacturing. Their human-safe variant, cobots, continue to improve in ease of setup, flexibility and payload.
Since their introduction 15 years ago, units from Universal Robots (UR), Boston, have become a mainstay in job shops, particularly in high-mix, low-volume environments. With a 16-kg payload version (UR16) introduced in 2019, UR continues to push the boundaries of where robots can fit in to a production workflow.
2020 has been an especially busy year, noted Joe Campbell, UR’s head of marketing for North America. Two themes have emerged: pandemic-driven reorganization and the embrace of new production models.
Small shops in particular—pressed to efficiently use every inch of limited real estate—are deploying cobots to keep workers socially distanced, he noted. “If you’ve got a cluster of three tools, you put one or two cobots in to give the operators breathing room.”
Additionally, shops are awakening to how cobots can boost the bottom line. “Shops are taking a different look” at the weekdays-only schedule “and finding the manufacturing team is open to more flexibility.” One UR customer created a weekend shift and found that many team members embraced the new opportunity. In other instances, shops that previously featured one skilled operator who performed machine setup and loading have added cobots for the loading function while the operator oversees multiple machines.
UR units save shops hours in setup time. They can be set up to function on a floor, wall or ceiling through the touchscreen; other robots often are specially built for a particular orientation. Cycle times are also reduced, particularly as UR cobots can be configured with a dual gripper to simultaneously unload a finished part and insert a new blank.
Critical to UR’s flexibility is the ability to combine its cobots with an array of third-party equipment and software. These are accessed through the UR+ program, “a kind of app store” for UR, Campbell said. Mechanical, electrical and software interfaces for UR robots are published, and third parties develop products to meet those specifications. “More importantly, they submit them to us for testing and validation. If we say a gripper is plug-and-play, it is—because we tested it.”
Included in UR’s ecosystem of 288 peripherals are part magazines, vision systems, sensors, mounting options, robot covers and apps. For instance, Beacon by Hirebotics lets operators monitor cobots via the cloud. “You can look at production statistics and make adjustments on the fly,” Campbell said.
In March, the UR+ program was expanded to include application kits that combine components like grippers with software “to solve a particular application problem.” One kit, by Robotiq, features an orbital sander, mounting hardware, vacuum hoses and software that lets users program a sanding protocol for a product like furniture or cabinetry. “You can program complex contours in minutes, not days,” Campbell said. Meanwhile, UR’s ActiNav kit is a flexible machine loading kit that lets users take parts from a bin and load them into various machines at a precise orientation. “You can introduce a new part into the system in less than an hour.”
Another key to getting shops to adopt automation is the option of virtual training. UR recently passed a milestone of training more than 100,000 operators online through the UR Academy, which features free training modules in programming and deploying UR cobots.
“If you have to send your three lead machinists off-site for the better part of a week to get trained, your production is crushed,” Campbell said. Small shops are “really attracted to the ability to do 90 percent of their training online.”
Fast Loading for the Future
In addition to the automation pressures of the pandemic, reshoring production to the U.S. is another major driver of robots and loading equipment for job shops.
“Manufacturers and job shops that have been historically slow to adopt robotics are beginning to embrace robotics more than ever,” said Jake Corning, product manager and mechanical engineer for Acieta LLC, Waukesha, Wis. “As there are more knowns than unknowns, both interest and orders have increased since the pandemic began. They see the benefit that robotics offer in keeping their machines running and parts being made even in times of social distancing, sick employees, and/or shutdowns that are impacting production capabilities.”
Additionally, with the global supply chain disrupted, “they also see that the pandemic is going to bring a tremendous amount of onshoring back to the United States. They will face an even more significant labor shortage than they did prior to the pandemic if they fail to embrace automation. Ultimately, despite the tragedy that the pandemic has inflicted in our country, U.S. manufacturers are already more comfortably embracing robotic technology and are seeing the benefits that will improve their competitiveness, improve workers’ job satisfaction and loyalty, and deliver to the American consumer more competitive prices.”
Acieta offers a range of solutions particularly suited to high-mix, low-volume routines, Corning explained.
“The FastLOAD CX1000 and CR2000 systems are intended to be easy to use for first-time robot users,” he said. “Our touch screen interface for the CR2000 makes it very easy to run the robot with different part sizes. The operator only needs to enter the part parameters, and the system automatically adjusts the program to run the new parts. The robot grippers and part fixturing are flexible for a wide variety of part sizes so that many different parts can run on the same system.”
Changeovers on the CR2000 can be done in minutes, and the CX1000, CR2000 and DR2000 systems are designed so the robot can continue running while the operator is loading or unloading parts. “This enables the machines to work nonstop during breaks, lunches and even outside of shifts as long as there are enough inbound parts.”
Mounted on wheels, the CX1000 is easy to maneuver on the shop floor. It is also available with multiple quick-change fixturing cart options and uses FANUC’s CRX-10iA/L robot, “which has a very easy-to-use touch screen interface with drag-and-drop programming icons,” said Corning. “When your challenges are more complex or larger scale, our custom solutions can also be designed for high-mix, low-volume part runs by using technologies such as vision, end-of-arm tool changers, and flexible fixturing.”
Acieta’s accompanying machine tending cells have proved popular, Corning noted. “They are standard robot systems designed to work with a wide variety of parts. Since they are pre-engineered standard products, they are much less expensive than a traditional custom system and are able to be delivered in as little as one week. All three systems can tend multiple machine tools at one time. In addition, our CX1000 and CR2000 systems utilize collaborative robots, which help maximize floor space usage because they don’t require safety fencing.”
For job shops automating for the first time, a great starting point is the collaborative CX1000, Corning said. By freeing up workers from repetitive tasks, automation lets them “learn how to program or do maintenance on a robotic system. An operator who previously tended one machine can now manage robotic systems on multiple machines.”
Solving Essential Problems
With its intimate understanding of machining and job shops’ unique needs, Methods Machine Tools Inc., Sudbury, Mass., helps manufacturers automate with an eye toward bringing in more business while creating a more skilled workforce.
“We need more good machinists,” asserted John Lucier, FANUC automation manager for Methods. “That’s what robots help us with. Robots help shops get more jobs so they can put more machinists to work.” A well-trained machinist is not loading and unloading machines, “he’s setting them up, picking tools and writing programs.”
Like other suppliers, Methods has seen a spike in pandemic-related automation, he said, particularly for producing ventilator parts.
Prior to the pandemic, Lucier recalled visiting plenty of low-volume shops that were looking at automation for the first time. Medium-volume operations that change cells two or three times a week to produce roughly 5,000 parts are becoming common, and Methods provides the conveyor-based Job Shop Cell Pro line for those environments. Adjustable lane dividers allow rapid changeover between small and large parts. Another popular option is a series of drawers featuring a steel or aluminum plate with holes for 20 to 40 parts.
Workholding is another major consideration, Lucier added; automated vises are a relatively simple solution. “It doesn’t have to be complex, with swing clamps and things like that. It could be something like a good old chuck or vise with pneumatics or hydraulics to open and close, and you’re making your own jaws—not unlike what a lot of shops are doing with runs of about 50 parts.
For lower-volume parts, even as low as lot sizes of one, Methods offers the Plus-K and Plus-K 60 robotic rotary storage carousel systems. “We’re not making the robot part-specific; the robot is set up to bring generic workholding in and out of the machine, whether it’s a little vise or pallet. The robot is set up to grab a common feature on the front of the workholding.” Parts are loaded into a manual vise, and the robot is pre-programmed to act like a pallet loading system; no end-user programming is necessary. This system also enhances the standard tool offering on the RoboDrill, going from 21 to an optional 161 tools.
With solutions such as these, job shops typically see return on investment in less than 12 to 18 months. “Our goal is to convince you to run it two or three shifts—to take a robotic cell, fill the infeed system with parts and go home at 5:00 PM, and get two to six hours of run time. If I can get an automated system that handles 80 percent of the work you plan on doing, we’re doing pretty darn good.”
Informing Methods’ solutions is a longstanding connection to job shops and knowledge of how they work, noted Lucier, himself a machinist by trade. For instance, he often reminds shops that they can machine their own steel or aluminum grippers. And, tweaking the programs pre-supplied on robots can be easier than CNC programming. The company’s automation integration group is keenly aware of the issues surrounding machine tools, from coolant and chips to tool rotation, tool life, deburring and more.
“If you’re going to put robots on machine tools, you want a robot integrator who does that,” Lucier concluded. “The benefits of robots should not be challenging to justify.”
Assessing Need, Adding Speed
Understanding a job shop’s needs for automation begins with a thorough evaluation of the volume required to increase productivity.
When hired by a client, said Absolute’s Ortner, “we do a system layout, decide best practices to automate—conveyor systems, robots, raw material handling, finish part handling—then design it in CAD to ensure all the pieces fit in their floor plan, all the while working within their budget.”
In addition to offering an array of standard automation equipment, from cobots to part handling to monitoring, Absolute “offers a turnkey package,” said Ortner. “We source what we feel is the best solution and work with those suppliers to ensure success.”
Absolute’s experience in sourcing the right equipment clearly pays off, she noted. “One client using an OB7 cobot is getting 20 percent more efficiency and a lot less scrap in a shift. They are able to reduce delivery times by two weeks on this particular run, which opens up the machine or cell for additional work for a higher ROI. Also, because they don’t have to do repetitive tasks as often, there are fewer workers compensation claims for the company—and workers don’t call in sick as often either, saving [the shop] a lot of money.”
As other shops have found, the increased availability of operators for other tasks often means “they have more time to contribute to the overall processes, like quality-control checks. They are more involved in process management rather than simply pushing buttons and are less bored and fatigued.”
Obtaining those benefits can be surprisingly cost effective, Ortner added. “Our cobot line from Productive Robotics starts at $34,900 for the basic CNC package. You can go from basic CNC package and upgrade to a fully integrated cell using several cobots, conveyors, in-process gaging and part presentation methods.”
Monitoring For More Output
To help shops keep jobs on schedule and run more projects unattended, Mitsubishi Electric Automation Inc., Vernon Hills, Illinois offers its MTConnect-based Integrated Machine Analytics (IMA) for machine monitoring. The IMA Mobile app offers an easy-to-install entry into machine monitoring.
With IMA, shops “are able to better understand production, which helps with accurately scheduling jobs to take full advantage of their available machines and work hours, as well as more accurately bid for more jobs,” said Robert Brodecki, IMA mobile service product manager for Mitsubishi Electric Automation.
The only hardware required is Ethernet cabling and a hub/switch if connecting multiple machines, and it takes as little as 5-10 minutes a machine to set up, he explained. “With the low cost point, users can see ROI within days, especially if they’re running unattended or lights-out production and have lost production time due to a machine faulting out and not finding out until later on. With IMA Mobile’s notifications, you’ll know within 10 to 15 seconds if a machine has stopped cutting, no matter where you are.”
Machine monitoring improves throughput significantly, he added. “Just looking at execution state, a lot of job shops usually have machines running jobs between 25 and 40 percent of their available time. Through simple monitoring of current status via IMA Mobile, they can quickly move that to 50 percent or more by being able to immediately attend to any machine that has stopped production for any reason. This is actual data straight off the machine, too; it removes the guessing game of how long the machine was cutting, in idle, or off.” Available machine hours are expanded by running more shifts with fewer workers—or unattended—without lost production because of an unexpected stoppage.
With IMA Mobile, operators can move to value-added tasks “knowing that the app will notify them when the job is finished or interrupted by something that needs attention.”
With relatively low cost of entry, Brodecki noted, IMA lets users “understand their production and make improvements, as well as start simpler, unattended machining projects while being assured their machines are continuing to run. Since it’s all built around the MTConnect standard, if a user decides to move to a more in-depth, customizable monitoring system, they don’t need to pay to have their machines connected again; they simply point the new software to the MTConnect Agents and machine data is quickly accessible.”
That ease of entry has been particularly important to automating in the time of COVID, he concluded. “It makes sense, since companies are looking to automate more, but it’s hard to know exactly where and how without accurate production data to identify the areas to automate. At the beginning of the pandemic, many companies we were talking with were still on the fence about machine monitoring. As the pandemic has worn on and companies realized they weren’t going to be able to avoid automation and remote working solutions any longer, they’ve been moving these projects to the top of the list.”