Metalworkers join the automation age

To automate or not - that is the question - but in a highly competitive global marketplace can Australian manufacturers afford not to? Katherine Crichton reports.

To automate or not – that is the question – but in a highly competitive global marketplace can Australian manufacturers afford not to? Katherine Crichton reports.

WITH developments in technology bringing the price of robotics and automation down, is there really an excuse for Australian manufacturers not to be using it in their operations?

New robotic and automation systems are quickly dispelling the commonly held belief that only low mix, high volume production runs will benefit from using these systems.

Many of today’s machine tool and manufacturing equipment providers offer automation and robot systems that are specifically designed for high mix, low volume production environments.

According to John Connolly, value chain manager with ANCA, in recent years there has been a strong move away from traditional stand alone machining centres with an operator at each one, towards more automated and integrated systems with a focus on unmanned operation.

“There aren’t too many applications where automation isn’t suited to. We sell systems into the pharmaceutical and automotive industries as well as into entry level production environments,” Connolly told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“From a company perspective, the main advantages of an automated system is the ability to reduce the time taken to load and unload tools unmanned, which not only reduces labour costs and increases productivity, but also the quality of products is increased by the repeatability of the manufacturing process.”

“These systems can offer companies irrespective of size, good capabilities and returns for even those doing small production runs and tricky jobs,” he said.

Even the simplest forms of automation such as automatic tool changing and pallet changing, when combined, can provide users with major increases in production.

There are now loading systems available which incorporate an innovative collet changing system which means varying tool types and diameters can be ground in an unmanned setup.

“The unique vertical design means floor space taken up by the loader is greatly reduced without affecting any of the production capabilities of the machine,” he said.

“As the technology behind the controls of the machines improve this will really drive the benefits that automation can bring to manufacturers and pave the way for the future.”

Automation is also becoming a viable solution for the current skills shortage, as many Australian companies struggle to find suitable workers.

“We have certainly had difficulty in finding good tradesmen but that doesn’t affect us from investing in the technology.

“With the automation that we have, the lower the skill level of the person can be. As the systems get more sophisticated, the easier they are to use.

“The skill level of the tradesman required are less they would be with a more manual machine,” Connolly said.

Flexible solutions

At the end of 2010, it is said that over 1.2 million industrial robots will be working in factories throughout the world.

Geoff Stevenson, engineering manager with CNC Engineering Sales & Service, said the technology is gaining in popularity as more people realise the benefits and flexibility that industrial robots can offer.

“One of the biggest developments in robotic technology lies in advances in control, sensor and vision technology which is increasing the number of applications robots can be used for,” he said.

Stevenson believes if Australian manufacturers want to compete globally, they need to be innovative in design and flexible in production.

“Robots offer a possible solution, so when manufacturers are setting up their processes they need to have a good look at the viability of automation and robots in their applications and whether it suits their needs,” he explained.

“In Australia we don’t have huge volumes of production, so to have the capability to have flexible workcells throughout machining and materials handling operations is paramount,” he said.

The key to the robot’s enhanced performance in terms of accuracy, speed, cycle-time, programmability and flexibility can be attributed to a new generation of motion technology and control software.

New technology now enables the co-ordination of up to four robots in a cell, with the ability to make the robot flexible in any chosen, linear direction.

This allows the robot to effectively perform like a mechanical spring when encountering resistance during operation, enabling the robot to deviate from the programmed path and thus cope with tolerances in fixtures and tools without the need for mechanical compliance devices.

Stevenson says as employees become increasingly reluctant to perform more tedious and dirty jobs in manufacturing, there will be an increase of robots in these types of applications.

“OH&S is becoming a key driver in Australia where it is imperative to protect workers from hazardous environments or where they could get strain injuries etc.”

With the technology designed to be easier to program and operate, Stevenson says more people from various backgrounds are being trained to program them.

“While the skills set of the outside integrator to design the cell and put it together needs to be quite advanced, in regards to actually operating the robots, most people who have an ability to use a computer, can program a robot.”

One of the key limitations associated with using robots and automation, is not the technology itself, but the mindset of traditional companies who are worried that the technology won’t be functional in their manufacturing processes.

“Willingness to take a leap into the technology is obviously a limitation, but what I would suggest to companies is to investigate some case studies and look at real life applications that have returned benefits for the person that made the investment,” Stevenson said.

ANCA 03 9751 820.

CNC Engineering 02 9725 5100.