Robot aids in an automated world

Today, efficient production times are vital to a manufacturer's success. Automated and robotic machine loaders and tenders can improve manufacturing performance, but are they worth it?

CUTTING costs has always been at the forefront of manufacturers’ minds, and with international competitiveness now essential to manufacturing’s continued success, cost-saving is even more pertinent.

Adding automated assistance to existing machinery is one option manufacturers can consider when looking to save on production costs.

A robotic addition that can load or tend to a machining centre or lathe is an economically sensible solution to ensuring machining tools run efficiently and professionally without the need for human supervision.

Matthew Plant, Sales Engineer at John Hart Robotics and Automation believes robotic additions to any machining centre can result in substantial cost savings and increases in production efficiency.

“The first item people look at when using robots is saving costs,” he told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“Labour costs are high for loading machines so by replacing an operator with a robot, you’re cost saving straight off the bat. The robot can work longer and through lunch and tea times, plus there are through-put benefits as well.

“Everyone needs to compete internationally these days and Australia, from a labour point of view, is quite expensive. So considering you will have a good payback and ROI on the robot, whether you’re running machine tools with small or large batches, a robot is definitely the way to go,” Plant said.

Colin Wells, MD at Robotic Automation agrees, adding that robotic tending can often be faster than manual loading, particularly as the robot can work without break time.

“We often see wonderful CNC, press brake and metal turning machines that automatically produce great quality, high-precision product in much less time than a staff member could,” Wells told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“You have a staff member who is now effectively a spectator but cannot be redeployed because the machines need to be tended again within minutes. Robotic tending and loading allows a load or magazine of raw parts to be initially presented in bulk, so the operators can turn off the lights and walk away from a whole shift,” Wells said.

Smarter machining

As intelligence technologies develop, such as vision and laser systems, robotic machine loaders and tenders are revolutionising the factory floor, virtually eliminating operators and with them, labour costs.

According to Plant, while robots may not run at a faster rate than humans, with the maximum robot program speed at 4000mm/sec, they are able to utilise time better.

“You have to look at efficiency over a long period,” he said.

“If you ran a machine for half an hour, a human could probably outstrip a robot, because a person could load the machine very quickly.

“But if you look at it over a period of one or two months, when you’ve got ebbs and flows, operators are having a bad day or are just tired, the robot would definitely outrun the human,” Plant said.

But is it worth investing in a new robotic addition to an old machining centre when you could purchase a brand new machine?

Wells believes robotic additions are well worth the investment as they help to extend the life of a machine and will continue to improve the production rates when added to a new, replacement machine.

“With an automated process, the predictability and consistency of production is reliable and can be factored into more efficient production planning,” he said.

“Of course ROI varies, but we have had projects that pay for themselves in under a year, particularly when production is running two or more shifts per day, up to seven days a week.”

Robotic machine loaders and tenders are most commonly six-axis robots to allow for maximum freedom of movement and are generally electrically driven, while the tools they are operating are often vacuum, pneumatically or electrically powered.

Robots tend to work individually on a machine by machine basis, but they can also be networked across the factory floor through Ethernet ports, to allow the overall supervision of the production process.

“Robots can also be programmed offline,” Plant said.

“We offer simulation software which creates a 3D environment on a PC. Using this software, you can program the robot for its next run while the robot is still working on its current one. Previously you would have to stop the robot and teach it its path which would mean certain downtime,” Plant said.

Both Wells and Plant believe robotic loaders and tenders will benefit manufacturers with large or small batch sizes across the metalworking industry.