CHICAGO (Aug. 4, 9:35 a.m. EDT) — You've heard the Sales 101 mantra: A motivated buyer leads to a sale … of robots.
Talk about motivation: Jobs moving to China. Customers insisting on world-class quality and more secondary assembly work and lower prices.
At NPE 2003 in Chicago, visitors to the two dozen or so robot makers expressed a renewed interest in automation.
“They realize that to stay competitive, they have to automate. Over the last three to five years, it's really become a new world market,” said Shane Wycuff, a salesman at Remak North America of Erlanger, Ky.
U.S. plastics processors still lag behind other regions of the world. According to officials at robot makers interviewed for this story, robots are running on about 25-40 percent of all injection presses operating in the United States. That's significantly less than in such robot-loving countries as Germany and Japan.
Small molders are even less automated. John Mallon, president of Yushin America Inc. of Cranston, R.I., estimates robots are at work on just 10 percent of injection presses at small U.S. molders.
But every molder, large and small, seems to be wary of China.
“Everywhere we go, they express interest in keeping business from leaving for China,” Mallon said. “The small guys are really worried about it.”
“Most of the simple stuff is either gone, or is going away,” said Jack Jensen, sales engineering manager at Star Automation Inc. He said the robot supplier in Menonomee Falls, Wis., has not been hit by the downturn.
“Primarily the jobs that are staying in the U.S. have to be automated,” Jensen said.
CBW Automation does a lot of work in packaging, one area that seems safe. But nobody is complacent, said Mark Bamberger, CBW's executive vice president.
“I don't care where the competition is; there's always going to be competition. You've got to become more efficient,” he said.
Robot manufacturers said they're hearing a strong message from customers — they want to reduce costs and do more automated secondary operations near the press, including checking for quality.
Mallon called quality control “a huge trend” in robotics. “A lot of it is integrating with pressure sensors in the mold,” he said. The robot also can handle a part through vision inspection or a weighing station, then kick out the part if it's bad.
Safety is another factor. Robots long have been used on large parts such as bumper fascias where it's difficult — and can be hazardous — for workers to go in to remove the part. Full automation also eliminates the risk of amputations. And a robot doesn't come down with carpal-tunnel syndrome. According to U.S. government data, plastics processing had the sixth-highest number of ergonomic injuries of any industry in 2000, showing a jump from the year before.
It all translates into busy times for automation, making robots one of the few bright spots in the otherwise struggling plastics machinery business.
Several robot makers acknowledge business suffered in 2001, when overall capital spending collapsed. The U.S. market for injection molding machines fell by more than 40 percent to about 3,500 and stayed there in 2002, eating into robot orders tied directly to new-press sales.
The United Nations said North American investment in industrial robots fell 17 percent in 2001, after several years of growth. But sales picked up again in 2002. Now the Robotic Industries Association reports orders for industrial robots jumped 48 percent in the first quarter of 2003, marking the best start in five years.
Plastics-specific robot numbers are scarce. The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. in Washington collects data on robots, but SPI folds the numbers into auxiliary equipment for its publicly released report.
“It's been a transition year and we're starting to see the market pick up again,” said Kevin Smith, vice president of marketing and sales at Ventax Robot Inc. of Ayr, Ontario. The company makes robots and acts as an integrator, custom-building manufacturing cells.
Smith said that in a recession companies typically invest in automation to become more efficient. But this time, money has been especially tight.
Money has been the biggest constraint to automation, Smith said.
“I've got dozens and dozens of projects that people desperately want to do, but they're waiting for approval.” But Smith said investment is starting to kick in, driven by foreign competition, greater complexity of molding and lightning-fast processing followed by downstream demands.
During NPE 2003, held June 23-27 in Chicago, McCormick Place became the world's largest plastics factory. Everywhere you looked, robots were grabbing parts, stacking them, manipulating them into boxes and more. There even was one robot that talked.
Articulating-arm, six-axis robots were mounted beside — and, in a new wrinkle, above — injection molding machines. A basic parts picker has to hand off a molded part to a second robot, or deposit it to a conveyor to be moved downstream. The articulating robot can do it all: stretch in to snatch parts, flip over to add inserts, then swing around to hold the parts for trimming, pad printing or a vision-system quality check.
Joseph Portelli, plastics industry manager for Fanuc Robotics America Inc. of Rochester Hills, Mich., 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 for tying in directly to secondary operations such as assembly or packing.
At NPE, Fanuc rolled 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 Fanuc recommends for injection molding because it gives maximum reach and stroke.
Fanuc also debuted a small robot called the P-50, designed to paint plastic parts. One early customer was Summit Polymers Inc. of Portage, Mich. As he watched the robot at Fanuc's NPE booth, Adam Doyle, a Summit Polymers manufacturing engineer, said improving quality prompted the automotive molder to automate what formerly was a hand-painting process.
“Quality from hand painter to hand painter is ridiculous,” Doyle said. The molder also liked the small size of the robot. “We're kind of tight as it is, so this doesn't take up much floor space,” he said.
Also showing six-axis robots was the Robotics Division of Staubli Corp. The Duncan, S.C., company ran three of its RXplastics robots, specifically designed for injection molding. One demonstrated high-speed demolding combined with secondary operations and palletizing and stacking.
The second robot performed 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 simulated the complete, automated assembly of cellular phones.
Motoman Inc. of West Carrollton, Ohio, showed a new highly rigid, six-axis robot designed for parts-finishing work such as deburring, painting, grinding and sanding. The robot, called DX1350, simulated 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 leaks.
“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 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 Wittmann 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.”