CHICAGO — Robots may not be ready to take over the business, but examples displayed at NPE 1997 prove they are getting faster — and smarter.
While no stunning breakthroughs stole the show, held June 16-20 at Chicago's McCormick Place, firms specializing in plastics processing automation demonstrated evolutionary improvements to robotics technology.
``There certainly were a lot of robots at the show,'' Michael Paslawskyj, vice president of economic research for CIT Group of Livingston, N.J., said in a post-show telephone interview.
``All of the robots impressed me,'' said Paslawskyj, an advocate of greater automation in the plastics industry. ``The things worked pretty fast. A human being couldn't work any faster.''
However, there seems to be a delay in getting robots from the show floor to the shop floor.
``Productivity in the industry has been lagging,'' he said, ``Too many people on the shop floors are doing jobs that robots could do.''
One thing that did not impress Paslawskyj was the lack of emphasis injection molding machinery makers are placing on developing their own robotics.
``Most just have another company's robots bolted on one of their machines,'' he said. ``They should be touting [robots] with their customers. Builders integrate robots with their machines.''
In the meantime, robotics companies raced to get their message out to processors at the show.
For Automated Assemblies Corp. of Clinton, Mass., the key to NPE was speed.
``That's where your money is,'' said Norton Kaplan, director of sales and marketing for AAC.
AAC's prime product on display was its AZ 260 HP Revolution servo robot, which raced against a part free falling from 25 inches. The AZ 260 was able to reach down and retrieve another part before the free-falling part hit the ground.
The robot, designed for injection molders with clamp capacities of 85-810 tons, uses ``a very, very sophisticated control system'' to operate at high speeds, said AAC President Pat Taylor.
To get the most of available robot speeds, AAC also has developed a new generation of graphical interfaces that combines infinite mold memory with ease of use.
``The molder can program this robot in total by himself,'' he said.
For problems beyond the ken of the average molder, the robot interface includes a direct modem link to AAC technical support.
Another, less-flashy, but also cost-effective development shown at NPE was modular tool ends for robots. While robots have gotten more sophisticated, the actual business ends of the machines are still the tools that pick up the finished molded products. Complicated tool changes can bog down even the fastest robots.
SAS Automation of Xenia, Ohio, demonstrated a modular system of tool components that could reduce changeover times.
``Usually in the past, robotics used completely customized end-of-arm tools for your parts,'' said Trent Fisher, general manager of SAS. Retooling often was costly and time-consuming.
But to counter changeover woes, SAS offers a quick-change chuck — a standardized mounting device that gives a single robot the ability to use a huge variety of interchangeable tools.
SAS takes the modular concept a step further with a complete line of tool parts — the frames, fingers and suction cups that allow robots to manipulate parts.
Using common parts helps molders build and modify tools quickly.
SAS also sells test rigs that allow molders to perfect tools before going to the time and expense of debugging them on the shop floor.