Joseph Portelli, plastics industry manager for Fanuc Robotics America Inc. (Booth E9540), said the time-tested three- or four-axis gantry robot is very good at extracting parts from horizontal injection presses. But he said they are more limited if for tying in directly to secondary operations such as assembly or packing.
At NPE, Fanuc is rolling out a six-axis, "articulated gantry" robot for on top of the press, called the Toploader M-16iB/20T. The robot can hang suspended beneath the rail or off the side of the rail, a "side-slung" arrangement it recommends for injection molding because it gives maximum reach and stroke.
Fanuc also is showing a new small robot, called the P-50, designed to paint plastic parts. Also showing six-axis robots is the Robotics Division of Staubli Corp. (Booth S2576). The company is running three of its RXplastics robots, specifically designed for injection molding. One will demonstrate high-speed demolding combined with secondary operations and palletizing and stacking. The second robot will perform demolding and in-mold decorating of an automotive interior trim part, including a vision-controlled station for label trimming with an ultrasonic knife. The third robot will simulate the complete, automated assembly of cellular phones.
Motoman Inc. (Booth N4375) is showing a new highly rigid, six-axis robot designed for parts-finishing work, such as deburring, painting, grinding and sanding. The robot, called DX1350, will simulate those operations on a saddlebag for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Jack Justice, Motoman's market manager for materials handling, said one fast-growing area is automated vision inspection, checking for quality, surface finishes, inspecting placement of labels and bar codes or checking bottles for leads. "We've been doing a tremendous business in packaging molded plastic bottles that will be transported to end users for filling," he said.
Fast and flexible
Hekuma GmbH (Booth S291) also will focus on packaging by doing in-mold labeling of yogurt cups in a 3.6-second cycle. Hekuma officials point out that robots are the only way to do IML, which requires very high speeds and precision. They cite another recent project: inserting four different types of inserts, totaling 104 pieces, into a two-cavity mold to produce an automotive connector.
Hekuma's automation almost always reduces cycle times, even when compared with free-fall ejection, according to Paul Gelardi, president of the company's U.S. agent, E Media.
CBW Automation robots also swoosh in and out faster than letting parts free fall. "We can get them out of there quicker than gravity," said Bamberger. "We take parts out pretty quickly - that's our claim to fame. Then we do some pretty incredible things to the parts after that."
CBW was founded in 1969 making machines to orient injection molded lids and containers. The company still makes one of its original machines and will display the L-290 at its booth and at Netstal Machinery Inc. (Booth S2632).
CBW will demonstrate flexibility on a 440-ton Husky press fitted with a parts-removal and orientation cell made of adjustable steel frames. Bamberger said one system can be used to run different-size parts.
CBW's theme at NPE is better process control, through a new operator interface called Lumera. Bamberger said the personal-computer-based control is much easier to use and makes more information visible to the operator. If a problem occurs, Lumera displays a picture of it and spells out exactly what to do next.
Injection press supplier Engel Machinery Inc. (Booth S1685) builds its own robots.
"We do almost as many retrofits as we do robots for our own new presses," said Harold Luttmann, operations manager for robotics and automation. "For us, when the economy went sour in 2001 and 2002, obviously we were affected by it as well."
But he said orders became brisk again last summer. Although many processors are running at less than full capacity, they want to upgrade the presses that are in operation. "A lot of companies are re-thinking and automating their plants," Luttmann said.
Fanuc's Portelli cited a "huge, untapped retrofit market."
"There are countless machines our there, many of them decades old. They are being tended manually only because that's how they've always done it, not necessarily because it makes sense," Portelli said.
David Preusse, president of Wittmann Inc. (Booth S1049), said molders are undergoing a "culture change" now that years of experience have proved the payback of robots.
"If a plant manager has 24 machines and he's only running 18 right now, what is likely is that he can invest in automation on the 18 machines. He can automate a couple of machines and get a return on investment," said Preusse.
At NPE, Wittmann aims to simplify the decision to invest by showing its lower-price Compact Series, which takes the control cabinet off the shop floor and mounts it on the traversing rail of the robot.
Like other robot suppliers, Wittman has seen a shift to customized, automated cells instead of only simple parts-removal robots. "We have seen a rise in our custom automation segment," Preusse said.
Michael Santa, president of Battenfeld of America Inc. (Booth S1602), said a lot of molders are interested in automating all the way from the pellet to the finished, packaged product.
"We have to come up with creative ways of making the parts better and for less, and automation becomes a critical part of that," Santa said.
The German parent of another press maker, Krauss-Maffei Corp. (S2002), wanted to supply its own robots, so in late 2002 KM bought Neureder AG, a German company that builds robots and customized automation systems.
Customers wanted Krauss-Maffei to offer turnkey systems to help them reduce labor costs and improve productivity, said Paul Caprio, executive vice president. "If you have an automated cell, you can compete head-to-head" with low-wage countries, he said.
For KM, in-house robots mean customers can get service and parts with a single phone call. "I think that will be a comfort zone for the customers," Caprio said.
Machinery manufacturers often tout their robots to run on their own presses, with controls linked together in the same brand.
Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. (Booth S1870) also touts the integration of Husky-made robots and its own injection presses. "People are not just buying machines; people want to buy work cells," said Joe Calomino, product manager for robots.
But the company offers something different: a stand-alone control cabinet for the robot so it can be moved to non-Husky machines.
"There's a notion that 'integrated robots' are joined at the machine's hip," Calomino said.
Robot prices have fallen even as suppliers add more features. As PC-based controls expand into robots, they have become easier to use and more flexible - an important feature for custom molders that want to be able to re-deploy the robot as molding jobs change.
Most suppliers tout "teachable" features and easy-to-use controls.
"We show them that it's going to do more than just set down a part. You're going to be able to package parts and do other things, as well," said Remak's Wycuff.
Yushin America's Mallon said computer controls and software mean a robot purchased today will be upgradable. "If you get the right controller with the right specifications, they'll do about anything now," he said.
Also touting ease of use is Sailor USA Inc. (Booth E9546). Sailor is showing its first robot with a Windows-based controller, called the RZ-V series. The robot RZ-V also is network-compatible. Another first: the robot can speak aloud, thanks to voice software. Sailor also is showing an RX-8 picker robot. Sailor also is demonstrating in-mold labeling.
At NPE, Automated Assemblies Corp. (Booth S1063) is unveiling a robot called the Raptor, which does not require an additional programmable logic controller or operator interface. "It's all built into the robot work-cell controller," said sales director Norton Kaplan. "It's a PC-based controller with an open architecture that functions not only as a servo-robot controller but also an integrated work-cell controller."
John Campbell, national sales manager of Ranger Automation Systems Inc. (Booth S3234), said traverse-beam robots are becoming more flexible for downstream functions, thanks to servo-programmable wrist motions. Campbell noted that more molders can afford robots as prices come down.
"Even small custom molders can justify automation by lowering the cost barrier to acquiring a fully flexible robot, one that can run most any job in a given press, any day of the week," he said.
Displaying their end-of-arm tooling wares will be SAS Automation Ltd. (Booths S3257 and E10188) and ATS Automation Technology Schwope Inc. (Booth N4691).
SAS President Trent Fisher said the cost of such technology is low compared with the cost of the manufacturing cell. "But the value of what you get from us is high. Your whole cell is only as good as its EOAT," he said.
Tooling generally is custom made to grip each part, but Fisher said SAS offers some tooling frames with pre-engineered stops, so the EOAT can be used on more than one job. SAS also is seeing more customers that can build their own tooling, using kit parts from SAS.
ATS is selling a lot of quick-change connectors to companies that have to change molds frequently, such as automotive molders, according to Vice President Juergen Kortberg. The same robot can run different molds on one machine.
One thing for sure - robots are here to stay. "The very easy parts that just fall out of the machine, this stuff went to Mexico," Kortberg said. "And now everything from Mexico goes to China."