Adapting Robotic Systems to Meet Customers’ Changing Needs
As our customers’ manufacturing requirements evolve, we partner with them to create innovative automation solutions. But sometimes we are able to adapt existing robotics to meet the new situation. An excellent example is how our engineers collaborated with automotive customers to adapt a tray exchange cell into an “alloy exchange” system to facilitate the heat treatment of small parts.
Ovens used for heat-treating would quickly melt plastic trays that normally hold parts. Special alloy trays were designed to withstand the extreme temperatures, but they were too expensive to make in the volumes needed for an entire production line. The alloy trays could only be used during the heat treatment phase. Transferring parts from plastic to alloy trays by hand proved to not only be time consuming, but an ergonomic and safety nightmare as the alloy trays are very heavy and the parts extremely hot.
The Automated Solution
Our engineers adapted a tray exchange system so that the parts are moved from plastic trays to the special alloy trays. The process is then reversed after heat treatment. This would seem simple on the surface, but certain variables made this technology transfer harder than it would seem. The size and weight of the part had to be considered, along with the cycle time required and how many pieces could fit in a tray. Even the trays themselves were inconsistent as they change over time. The end of arm tooling (EOAT) was also very important. The bigger the EOAT used, the bigger the cell had to be so that the robot would have room to articulate.
Our engineers used software simulations to program algorithms so that all of these variables fit together into the optimal system. The goal was to select the smallest and quickest robot possible to lift and handle the parts and the trays. Alloy exchange systems are now in use with many of our automotive customers.
Evolution in Action
Sometimes further adaptation is necessary due to variables such as a changing market. For instance, we once designed an alloy exchange system for a customer based on a specific cycle time. As their volumes increased, the logical option was for the customer to buy another systems. But due to space constraints, the customer challenged our engineers to find another solution.
While running simulations, our engineers came up with an innovative solution – add a second robot! One large robot would present the trays to a small robot, which would rapidly exchange the parts while the large robot managed the trays. The retrofit cut the cycle time in half and cost 50% less than a new system with a very small increase in the size of the system. Needless to say, the customer liked those numbers and authorized the retrofit.
As these were production machines, only one was shipped back to us at a time. After refining the process, the rest of the machines were retrofitted one at a time in the customer’s plant working around their schedule.
Nuances per Customer
Each customer has its own processing philosophies, cycle time and space requirements not to mention unique parts. That is why a close partnership is required to ensure that an alloy exchange or other system evolution matches the their particular needs and is put into operation efficiently and effectively, with minimum disruption to the production line.