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In the Robotic Trenches

Kip Hanson
By Kip Hanson Contributing Editor, SME Media

Tales from manufacturers who’ve implemented automation: Why they did it, what the results were—and advice to others considering a new droid

MT Solar of Montana solved its low-volume, high-mix welding needs with a UR10e collaborative robot and Cobot Welding Tool from UR partner Vectis Automation. (Provided by MT Solar)

Shopping for a new pickup truck? How about a replacement for that tired trolling motor, or trying to decide whether the Thai restaurant that opened last month is any good? In these and countless other buying situations, the best advice is often to speak with customers who’ve purchased those products or dined on that questionable cuisine. What were their experiences? Did they receive good service, and did the product meet their requirements? Perhaps most importantly, would they buy it again?

The same is true for robots. Especially robots. That’s because, given the continuing labor shortage and hopeful resurgence of reshoring efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere, robotic automation is key to the manufacturing industry’s growth and increased efficiency. Nowhere is this more true than with small businesses like MT Solar Co. of Charlo, Mont., where owner and president Travis Jordan has faced rapid growth since the company’s founding. Jordan recently turned to collaborative robots (cobots) as a solution. As it turned out, his decision was a game-changer.

“We started out doing general manufacturing and fabrication around 12 years ago, then pivoted to the solar industry in late 2014 with the launch of our first flagship product line,” Jordan said. “We’d invested in a CNC plasma table shortly before that, so our workflow back then entailed automated cutting of the individual pieces and then welding them together by hand. That approach worked fine until a few years ago, when the solar market really began taking off and we had to ramp up quickly. But like most shops these days, we struggled to find skilled labor. We decided to look at robotics as a way to increase throughput on some of our repeat welding work.”

Despite its rapid growth and skyrocketing demand, Jordan is quick to point out that his production team is focused on Lean manufacturing principles, and therefore makes its customizable mounting systems in small batch sizes on a just-in-time basis. His search for a scalable yet flexible solution eventually led him to Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Universal Robots USA Inc. (UR), where he found a system able to meet the company’s low-volume, high-mix needs. The Cobot Welding Tool from UR partner Vectis Automation in Loveland, Colo., is equipped with a UR10e cobot, an integrated pendant and “DIY programming” software, and is attached to a portable modular fixturing table with onboard power supply from Rhino Cart.

Jordan said they kicked the tires on a number of high-quality systems during their search, but most were geared towards higher production volumes, not the dozen-piece and smaller lot sizes that MT Solar needed to process, often on an hourly basis. Most also required safety cages, an expense that Jordan wanted to avoid if possible. “Our fixturing needs are also much simpler than they would be with a conventional robot,” he said. “If a part doesn’t fit and requires hand welding, someone can just jump in there and do it on the same table, then let the cobot go back to work. That’s not possible when you’re dealing with all sorts of guarding and pivoting turntables like you see with most automated welding cells.”

Perhaps his only regret is that he didn’t buy two of them. “Later this year, we’re planning to bring in another cobot so we can dedicate one to setup and programming and a second for production,” said Jordan. “That will allow us to achieve continuous flow, as needed in a Lean environment.”

The teach pendant on MT Solar's UR10e cobot is simple enough to use that even inexperienced operators have no problem setting up a new job. (Provided by MT Solar)

Tight Quarters

Steve Dillon shares a similar cobot success story, albeit one with a completely different rationale. The vice president of CDP Diamond Products in Livonia, Mich., he’s among the third generation of toolmakers in the Dillon family. But when he proposed to his brothers that they invest in robots to keep their eight FANUC wire EDM (WEDM) machines running around the clock, they were skeptical but agreed to give it a try.

As its name suggests, CDP Diamond Products designs and manufactures a broad array of custom diamond cutting tools. One step in the process involves loading the brazed tool into a rotary table and wire cutting the desired profile on each flute, an operation that typically requires around three hours. To maximize machine uptime and increase throughput, Dillon equipped most of the WEDMs with a pair of rotary tables, but this only gave him six hours of unattended machining. He reached out to his FANUC distributor, Methods Machine Tools Inc. in Sudbury, Mass., for advice.

“At first, they suggested more rotary tables, but those things are crazy expensive, and I knew I could probably get a robot for around the same price,” Dillon said. “The problem was the floor space. I’d built temperature-controlled rooms around the wire machines to maximize part accuracy, and that meant there was no room for guarding and cages and all that. Fortunately, FANUC had just introduced their collaborative robot series around that same time.”

Similar to MT Solar’s welding solution, Methods provided CDP Diamond Products with a movable stand containing pockets for two dozen HSK 63 toolholders. To this, they attached a FANUC CRX collaborative robot, which has enough arm reach to service two machines. Depending on the tool mix, Dillon and his team can now run two or more shifts completely unattended, and if an operator needs to step in and work on one of the machines, the other can continue as it was.

“It’s so hard to find people that, when my son was in high school, I would ask him to come in at night to feed the machines,” said Dillon. “Just the other day, he called from college, wondering if we had any work for him. I had to tell him, ‘Sorry, son. You’ve been replaced by a robot. Now go study.’”

CDP Diamond Products enjoys increased machine utilization thanks to a FANUC CRX cobot attached to a movable stand that holds dozens of HSK 63 toolholders. (Provided by CDP Diamond Products)

Cage Match

Ron Douglas, owner and president of Associated MetalCast LLC of Oxford, Ala., has no problem with cages. His company installed a FANUC robot on one of its Okuma Genos L300 CNC lathes several years ago and Douglas has since become a firm believer in automation. The company now has three such cells and plans to implement two more over the summer. Since these are so-called “industrial robots” and are not collaborative, cages are needed to keep humans safe, although one cell uses only a light curtain. Regardless, all are tasked with loading and unloading parts, cleaning them in the cells’ wash stations, and in one case, performing 100 percent inspection on an integrated CMM.

Associated MetalCast does not cast or forge parts. Douglas founded the company in 1998 and chose its name due to a close association with foundries throughout the country. It offers precision machining, painting, heat-treatment, assembly, and other value-added processes for a range of industries, including agriculture, heavy equipment, and infrastructure. And while many of its finished parts begin as castings or forgings, Associated MetalCast and its 96 employees also machine a great deal of bar stock and plate, providing its customers with a “one-source” manufacturing solution.

When asked why he began automating, Douglas’ response was not surprising. “Given our challenges with finding skilled labor here in Alabama, automation will continue to be a very big part of our future. Not only does it increase efficiency, throughput, and part consistency, but it also frees our employees to engage in more interesting tasks than machine tending. All of this is very important in today’s machining world.”

He noted another important point, which is to get team members on board when beginning any automation project. “Surprisingly, that was quite challenging at first,” said Douglas. “I struggled to get buy-in from the engineering and production people because it was something new to them, and completely outside their scope. But once they started seeing the results and realized automation was the right step forward for the company, they got behind it. Between their support and that of our robotics integrator, the rollout has been very successful.”

Breaking with Tradition

Duane Manth, general manager of Manth Manufacturing Co., Tonawanda, N.Y., has a long history with robots. Over the past two decades, he’s invested in various forms of automation, including several Wasino gang-style CNC lathes with integrated gantry loaders that he used for some of the shop’s higher volume components. And while those machines have done a good job for him, he wanted a robot that’s more flexible than those two and three-axis gantries, and can be used in a cellular configuration that includes human workers.

Because the automation solution from Methods Machine Tools is collaborative, CDP Diamond operators can easily step in and work on one of the machines while the other continues producing. (Provided by CDP Diamond Products)

“Throughout our 40-year history, we’ve always tried to become more competitive, and where appropriate, automation has played a role in that,” Manth said. “So when my manufacturing manager Mike Rex and I started talking about increasing throughput on one of our manual production cells, it just so happened that the sales guy from Absolute Machine Tools had stopped in a few days earlier and dropped off a flyer for the OB7. Someone put it on my desk, and I kept reading it and looking at the price tag and pretty soon I called him and said, ‘Tell me more about this.’”

The OB7 is a collaborative robot from Productive Robotics Inc., a Carpinteria, Calif.-based spinoff of ZBE Inc., which builds robotic camera systems for the film industry. Manth didn’t care how the 12-year-old company got started—all he cared about was reducing labor costs in his three-person machining cell. He purchased two OB7s and used them to tend the cell’s CNC lathes, leaving one person behind to operate the cylindrical grinder and keep an eye on the cobots.

The solution was so effective that Rex was soon looking for other OB7 applications, eventually putting them to work operating honing and broaching machines. “We also have an OB7 feeding a cylindrical grinder in another cell, which freed up one of the operators to work on other stuff,” said Manth. “They’ve been a huge success.”

His and his team’s continuous push for greater efficiency is what led to Manth Manufacturing’s acquisition late last year by its biggest customer, Dynabrade USA of Clarence, N.Y. “We strongly believe that automation is the future of manufacturing, which is why we will continue to invest in Manth’s capabilities while at the same time working on our own automation offering,” said company president Mike Buffamonti. “Dynabrade sees many opportunities for robotic material removal and surface conditioning, so has begun working with various cobot manufacturers to provide proof-of-concept solutions to our customers. We’re very excited about this next step in our evolution.”

Setting Priorities

None of this comes as a surprise to Douglas Bingham, senior director of manufacturing technology at Honeywell International Inc.’s Phoenix facility. With five divisions, more than 100,000 employees worldwide, and $34 billion in sales last year, the Charlotte, N.C.-based manufacturer has extensive experience with automation. Whether it’s automated smoke detector lines in Trieste, Italy, or robotic welding cells in Mexicali, Mexico, this Fortune 100 company has deployed automation technology across hundreds of manufacturing sites.

What’s been missing, said Bingham, is a comprehensive, corporate-wide strategy. “Each site has taken it upon themselves over the years to automate whatever they saw would provide a reasonable return on investment. And while that has brought good results in most cases, it could also be far more efficient and cost-effective. That’s why we formed the Automation Center of Excellence (COE) team which includes a dedicated Automation leader from each business.

Associated MetalCast installed a FANUC robot on one of its Okuma Genos L300 CNC lathes several years ago. Owner Ron Douglas has since become a firm believer in automation. (Provided by Associated MetalCast)

Instead of reinventing the wheel every time a new factory goes up or product is launched, Bingham and his counterparts will work to standardize the company’s automation solutions. It will assess operations in key sites, identify which manufacturing technologies or processes are the right ones to automate, define benchmarks and develop modular solutions, and then scale those solutions to the areas where they will bring the greatest benefit.

To this end, Bingham recently spoke at a meeting of nearly 200 integration firms. He described the project and his group’s automation priorities—welding, machine tending, deburring, and inspection among them—and offered the following mission statement: “Deploy Intelligent Automation Technologies On Key Processes In Our Core Footprint To Create Predictable, Resilient, And Efficient Operations.”

He then suggested that their external expertise would be needed if Honeywell were to complete this mission, and invited them to share any ideas they might have. “We knew it was important to engage with these and other experts up front to make the right solutions in the best manner possible, and then standardize around them,” said Bingham.

This standardization is crucial, he added, as are detailed statements of work and accurate simulations of any proposed solutions. “That’s not something we would always ask for on previous automation projects. Now it’s a must. We want to see how the cell will work before we actually place a purchase order for it. With that comes the requirement to only use pre-approved hardware—specific brands of PLC and robots, for example—and the development of standardized modules that we can then copy and paste across our different facilities. That will help eliminate the potpourri of equipment you currently see in some of our factories, while also making automation easier and more cost-effective to deploy. We just started this project last year, but I have to say that we see plenty of opportunities ahead of us.”

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