Lights-out robotic machine tending addresses labour issues
New England Union Company (NEU) is a family-owned foundry and machine shop that makes brass threaded pipe fittings for the plumbing and shipping industries in the US.
In the past, NEU had replaced outdated machine shop equipment with modern CNC machines, but manufacturing staffing remains a challenge in Rhode Island. To address labour shortages and longer cycle times, the company deployed a UR10e cobot from Universal Robots and an ActiNav bin picking system to run untended all night long. With ActiNav, NEU can increase output with the same number of employees.
Updating the shop from older lathes to modern CNC machines improved product quality but also increased cycle times, which impacted deliveries and didn’t effectively use valuable machinists. NEU needed to increase output without adding manned shifts, and wanted to automate less-specialised tasks so that employees could be moved to higher-value roles such as setting up CNC machines and spending more time on inspection and quality.
The company’s first collaborative automation project used a Universal Robots UR10e cobot and its built-in palletising function to pick parts from an organised tray to feed a gantry system for the CNC machine that performs threading, drilling and other operations. It took an employee about an hour to load the ordered grid on the tray, and the cobot could run for about eight hours unmanned.
This was an improvement, but the company needed a system that could run all night without an operator. NEU Vice President Brent Petit explored vibratory systems, but they couldn’t meet NEU’s repeatability requirements. That’s when he was introduced to ActiNav.
“The advantage of the ActiNav system is that we can just bring a bin right over to the machine, set it up, and it will start picking right from the bin,” said Petit. “We don’t need to have an employee standing there, picking up the parts and placing them into that pallet system that we were doing beforehand.”
During day shifts, employees can quickly refill the bin as needed, then return to other tasks. At the end of the day, workers simply bring a full bin to the ActiNav system, check the standard, set it to run and leave for the night. The bin holds enough parts to keep the robot and CNC machine running unmanned all night long, and employees return in the morning to bins of finished product. They inspect the last part off the machine and take the finished bin to inventory, refill the raw-parts bin and let the robot keep running.
“The ActiNav system has a big bin with enough parts that fit in that bin where we don’t have to worry about it stopping. It can run all through the night. We come back to finished parts, and it’s a beautiful thing,” said Andrew Lieffers, NEU Operations Manager.
The ActiNav system first performs a 3D scan of the bin, then the UR-10e cobot picks a raw part and places it onto a regrip fixture. The robot activates the fixture to vibrate the part so it’s perfectly lined up to load into the gantry system that is the staging system for the CNC machine. At a signal from the machine, the robot picks a finished part from the gantry system, dunks it in water to rinse off the coolant and drops the part into a finish pan. Then the robot returns to the regrip fixture to pick the correctly oriented raw part and places it onto the gantry system to go into the CNC machine before starting the cycle again.
NEU is currently running 10 different parts on the ActiNav system, with the goal of running more than 30 different parts. ActiNav will run 24 hours a day, five days a week, allowing the company to increase output to meet demand with the same number of employees.
“We want our employees to be able to think through problems, and not just be assigned mindless tasks like pacing blanks on a tray,” said Lieffers. “It also allows us to have inventory more readily available for our customers and to make lead times more predictable.
“I think the next steps will be looking at our entire factory from the foundry to the machine shop and seeing where else we can use automation. If you’re not continuously implementing automation, you’re falling behind.”
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