Fast and flexible
Hekuma GmbH of Eching, Germany, also focused 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 cited 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 in Kennebunk, Maine.
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."
Fort Collins, Colo.-based CBW was founded in 1969 making machines to orient injection molded lids and containers. The company still makes one of its original machines, and displayed the L-290 at its booth and at Netstal Machinery Inc.'s stand.
CBW demonstrated 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.
The firm's NPE theme was 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.
Conair Group Inc. and ACS Group, two broad-line auxiliary equipment companies that supply robots, both were pitching ease of use in Chicago.
Too many processors still think robots are rigid and have to be locked into one molding job, said Tony Mass, business manager for automation for ACS Group in Wood Dale, Ill. Robot makers have worked for years to allay that fear, arguing that robots are much more adaptable, and they have the controllers to back it up.
Mass said the operator-robot interface is easier to use now. At NPE, ACS showed a new controller based on Microsoft's Windows XP operating system and .NET networking software. Each type of user has access to a single portal, one for setup, one for maintenance, one for programing. That avoids information overload when using the controller.
"What the user sees has been dramatically simplified," Mass said. Icon-based programming makes the 10-inch screen resemble a personal computer. The controller also can link to a network, so a digital picture can be taken and put into a memo for e-mailing, right from the robot.
"It's got to be simple to write a program," said Jim Healy vice president of automation sales at Pittsburgh-based Conair.
A touch-screen controller on Conair's Generation IV robot prompts the setup person with a series of questions requiring a yes or no answer. "You can write a simple pick-and-place program in just a few minutes," Healy said.
In addition to simplicity, Conair's controller has power. An internal PC means the robot can run all downstream equipment such as degators, stamping and pad printing.
Injection press supplier Engel Machinery Inc. builds its own robots in Guelph, Ontario.
"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 out 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., 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 aimed 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, Torrington, Conn.-based 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. in West Warwick, R.I., 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., 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 of the company in Florence, Ky. "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.
Bolton, Ontario-based Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. also promotes 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 - important features for custom molders that want 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. of Kennesaw, Ga. Sailor showed 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 showed an RX-8 picker robot, and it demonstrated in-mold labeling.
At NPE, Automated Assemblies Corp. of Clinton, Mass., unveiled a robot called the Raptor that does not require an additional programmable logic controller or operator interface. "It's all built in to 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. in Shrewsbury, Mass., 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.
Mass of ACS said robots no longer are just for elite molders. "Improvements in technology, and also the obvious competitive pressures in the last couple of years, have driven prices down," he said. "So it is substantially more affordable for the average users."
Logic One Consulting, an Elmhurst, Ill., company that sells used and rebuilt robots, released a retrofit controller for a gantry robot. PLC Plus is designed for low-cost applications in which an older pneumatic robot is converted to induction motors. It uses an Allen-Bradley SLC 5/03 processor and A-B's HSRV servo control module.
Displaying their end-of-arm tooling wares were SAS Automation Ltd. of Xenia, Ohio, and ATS Automation Technology Schwope Inc. of Farmington Hills, Mich.
SAS President Trent Fisher said the cost of such technology is low compared with the cost of the manufacturing cell. "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."