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Automated capabilities continue to bring greater efficiencies to manufacturing

Robotic automation equipment, like turnkey systems, play a bigger role in tube and pipe fabrication

Regardless of fabrication needs, shops can probably find an automated machine or system within budget. Getty Images


Once a dirty word on production floors everywhere, and formerly spoken with unbridled glee in executive conference rooms, automation has become something much more comprehensive than merely a way to reduce labor. Sure, some workers still grumble, but the longstanding shortage of skilled labor, coupled with advantages in making the workday less monotonous and safer, have helped mitigate some of the perennial objections on the shop floor. Meanwhile, improvements in part quality, machine capabilities, and manufacturing productivity—especially in light of competition from companies in low-wage countries—have come together to create an updated perspective of automated manufacturing systems in the executive suite.


"From 20 years ago to today, the perception of automation has changed dramatically," said Pat Downing, director of sales for tube fabricating equipment and services for Wauseon Machine and Manufacturing Inc., Wauseon, Ohio.


"Back then, you didn't say 'automation' in a tube plant because people were afraid they'd lose their jobs," he said. These days nearly everyone is aware that automation is a fact of life, and when it makes inroads in an industry, every business has to embrace it to keep up with the competition, Downing said.


Critical, too, is the fact that it creates new opportunities.


"Some of the old attitude is still out there," said Carroll Stokes, sales engineer for T-Drill Industries. "Some workers are afraid it's going to take away jobs. In reality, fully automated turnkey systems can help a company grow by bringing in more business. Automation doesn't kill jobs, it brings in work that you don't have."


Automation in the 21st Century

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, programmable control systems provided a big step forward in improving the way manufacturing systems worked. The variations on the theme (DNC, CNC, or simply NC) used programmed instructions to control machine motions. Rather than feeding a length of material until the feeding carriage hit a hard stop for cutting, bending, piercing, or punching, machines with modern control systems would run differently, relying on instructions from a program to tell an actuator how far to move the carriage and another when to make a stroke for cutting, punching, or some other process. Accuracy and consistency improved dramatically, and NC laid the foundation for automation.


As time went on, new possibilities developed that until recently were too expensive for most manufacturing applications. Incorporating more sophisticated actions or motions (or additional motions), adding sensors to monitor them, and developing ever-more sophisticated software programs to control them were cost-prohibitive steps in the 1980s, 1990s, and even into the early 2000s. However, like most electronic technologies and software, capabilities grew as prices fell. Many of the underlying technologies are much more capable and much less expensive than in the past, so a process that would have been possible to automate but too expensive for a decent return on investment in 2000 or 2005 might be affordable in 2020. For example, the cost of servo technology has fallen by 60% to 70% over the last 30 years to around $1,500 to $2,000 per axis, according to Stokes. Electronic subsystems have fared much better.


"A vision system that cost $30,000 to $40,000 when we first implemented this technology runs just $5,000 to $7,000 these days, and the latest ones are much more capable," Downing said.


"The main drivers are advancements in sensors, vision systems, robots, and software, but this isn't all," he said. "Automation in tube fabrication really progressed when the industry started using all-electric end formers. Servomotors make it easy to monitor the force developed by the actuator and the distance it has traveled, which allows precise control over the bending cycle."


This means that today's automated, custom-built machines aren't just faster and more accurate than their predecessors of a few years ago, but generally they can do more than before, more accurately than before, taking on tasks formerly filled by the operators.

Sending out an RFQ for a vast turnkey manufacturing system can be the way to go for big OEMs. But all of the hardware, software, sensor, and control technologies are also available to small equipment builders.


Capabilities of Automation

In many cases, especially when making a simple part, basic automation is faster than manual processing, and this is reason enough to automate. However, finished products tend to become more sophisticated over time, so the machines that make the components tend to become more sophisticated too. Automated systems help in inspecting raw materials or intermediate goods, error-proofing processes, fabricating parts, and making entire assemblies.


"These days, many invest in turnkey automation systems," said Matt Phillips, automation president for Tooling Technology Group. Some still want a machine or a workcell, but many are thinking bigger these days.


"In metal fabrication, the systems often go beyond fabricating parts and perform other tasks, such as bonding," Phillips said. Assembly and bonding aren't necessarily difficult, but the incoming parts must conform to all the dimensional requirements for the assembly process to go as planned.


Part Inspection. "In the past, part inspection was the responsibility of the machine operator," he said." If the machine operators were dependable, this was fine, but if not, they might load bad parts." Getting around that problem means designing a system that does adequate inspections for the specific application.


"Laser inspection equipment and camera systems are used to measure a part's dimensions and detect part features," Phillips said. "Often they can measure dimensions down to 0.0005 in. Measuring to that precision with a laser, then loading the part with a robotic system, is much faster and more reliable than an operator checking parts and loading them manually."


* "A vision system can detect the presence of a part or a feature, so for example, it can determine whether a tube has an end form or a nut on it," Downing said. "It also can be used to detect color, so it can determine the presence of a specific O-ring."


And vision systems can be more specific than that.


"A 2D vision system can find a fitting on a tube and determine if it's in the right location," he said. "A 3D vision system can determine depth, so even if parts aren’t stacked in a bin in an orderly fashion, it can depict the fitting’s exact x, y, and z location."


Vision systems can be used for functions other than a preloading inspection as well.


"One of our machines was used to assemble a product made from five components," Phillips said. "Some of the components were very similar and could be fit together in the wrong order." Preventing that was a matter of devising an error-proofing system.


"The customer wanted a poka-yoke system to prevent an assembly errors—it was an automotive assembly—so we installed three cameras on the system and a profilometer to prevent assembling the unit wrong," he said. "The poka-yoke system added 15% to the machine's price, but the customer thought it was a worthwhile investment." That might seem pricey in some industries, but in the automotive world, adding many thousands of dollars to the price of a machine is a good investment if it prevents a single recall.


Robots and Cobots. As parts and assemblies have become more complex, the robots that assist in making them have become more sophisticated as well. These days some do more than pick parts from a bin of incoming material and move them from machine to machine for processing. Phillips described a system that performs its own diagnostics with some self-correcting capability.


On occasion, a robot's subsystems don't quite work in unison—it tries to assemble two parts and simply fails. This can happen when a mismatch develops among the vision system that the robot uses to sense its environment, the software that runs the robot, and the actuators that provide the robot’s motions. This sounds like a difficult problem to fix, one that requires refining the vision system software or fine-tuning the program that runs the actuators, but onboard diagnostics sometimes can remedy the situation.


"A feedback loop often provides the necessary correction," Phillips said.


The feedback loop runs in the background, and the corrections take place while the system is making parts, making small corrections online. If the feedback loop can't manage the correction while the system is running, in some cases the operator shuts the system down to try to sort it out offline. Downtime is expensive, but a self-correcting system gets such problems resolved far faster than a less sophisticated system that requires a more intrusive remediation.


"A less capable system just does the same motions over and over," Phillips said.


When a working environment needs both a robot and a worker, guarding is necessary to protect the worker, unless a cobot (collaborative robot) is substituted for the robot. Designed, built, and programmed specifically to share a workspace with people, cobots eliminate the need for guarding and no doubt will have greater roles as time goes on. Downing warns that cobots don’t solve every problem of interaction, however.


"Using a cobot depends on the application," he said. "If the process makes parts that have sharp points or rough edges, or if the parts are hot, you still can't have a person working in that environment."


Even in cases in which a robot takes on most of the machine-tending duties, workers are still necessary to keep an operation running.


"You still need a person to get raw material to the machine," Downing said. "You might have an operator filling a hopper that feeds five or six machines, and he might do some quality control checks or some other value-added activity that isn't easily automated." This allows the fabricating staff more time to focus on areas that can't be automated, such as using judgment to make decisions that aren't easily automated.


Although turnkey cells with robots or cobots are the pinnacle of automation, some fabricators might not be ready for such a big step. This doesn’t mean that they can’t find affordable automated machines to fulfill quite a few fabrication needs, even as they change over time. Innovo Corp. is an example of a small company that makes standalone machines that keep up with the latest trends relative to automation and process control. As machines run faster, tolerances become tighter, and manufacturers rely less on machine operators, standalone machines—like turnkey systems—can be outfitted with the latest in sensors and software to run more reliably without operator intervention.


Innovo also uses design strategies that keep up with the times. For example, its machines usually incorporate a little more room in the frame than necessary, so if the customer needs additional capabilities in the future, the frame has some open space to facilitate modification.


A Virtuous Cycle

Phillips noticed that as automation becomes more sophisticated, it creates a desire for even more sophisticated automation. He compared it to the technologies used in automobiles these days. Conveniences such as rear-view cameras, side mirrors with blind-spot indicators, and seats that vibrate when the car drifts too far from the lane's center are multiplying. All provide driving assistance that simply wasn't available until recently. Before long, such conveniences become necessities, encouraging further innovations.


Automation is a lot like that, Phillips said. The processes that were tricky to automate 10 years ago are easy now, leading the developers to create still more automated processes that often are welcomed by manufacturers striving for more sophistication.


This trend works in two ways to help relieve the skilled worker shortage. First, it draws people to manufacturing.

"Anything that involves automation involves computers and software, and they draw young people into the industry," Bochat said. "Automated systems don't replace people—they create new challenges that young people like to solve."

Phillips concurred.


"As people get more interested in automation, they want to use the full scope of the technology, which feeds the need for more knowledge in the various systems and subsystems, whether the principles are electronic, hydraulic, pneumatic, or mechanical," Phillips said.


Second, as machine operators become more comfortable with these technologies, their job duties grow.


"For example, in the old days you'd need a repair technician who could diagnose and repair the machine," he said, "These days, the HMIs are so sophisticated that they point the operator to the trouble area, and often the operator can swap out the failed component."


Beyond the Future

"We're always on a learning curve," Phillips said. "I'm always taking training courses and always learning from our customers too."


For the most part, Phillips finds that people in manufacturing environments embrace their roles. "People understand that they can't be complacent, and many people I meet always want to learn more," he said. " It's rewarding to work with such customers."


He does acknowledge that some customers deal in parts that simply don't generate enough revenue to consider automation. When the profit is just a few cents per part, the contract doesn't leave any room for investments, so such programs are destined to continue to be manually processed.


Still, those tend to be in the minority. Most fabricators have some cash to spend and aren't too hesitant to spend it, but most should be aware that automating a process isn't just a chance to remove labor or make a process run more consistently—it's a chance to rethink a process and upgrade it.


"It's gotta have a little more moxie to it," Bochat said. An ear for picking up on customers' desires, an ability to frame those desires as problems, and the drive to solve them are three components that culminate in better machines.


"Engineers think differently" Bochat said. "If someone tells an engineer, or a team of engineers, 'It can't be done,' they'll find a way to do it. They work diligently to prove that it can be done, whether it’s mechanically, electronically, or a combination of both." These days, electronics and software give them much more latitude than they had in the past, and the possibilities are growing exponentially, Bochat said.


He cites one case, a machine for making panel-style fencing, critical to Innovo, as an example. "A few years back it was customary to make fence rails on two or three individual machines, and even using routers to make notches," he said. Routers make chips and chips jam machines. "These days a single CNC punching and notching system provides more flexibility, higher throughput, and parts that are cleaner and more accurate."


In applications that rely on several machines from a variety of vendors, Downing and Stokes noted that the role of the integrator has evolved over time.


"Wauseon Machine's role has grown quite a bit over the last 20 years," Downing said. “In 1999 we developed automated workcells for tube fabrication using only our own equipment. A few years later we were integrating other companies' equipment with robots. About 10 years ago, we started developing automated workcells for applications other than tubing, and these days the company is a Level IV Certified Vision Integrator and Certified Service Provider for FANUC Robots. In addition to developing the system and commissioning it, the integrator has other responsibilities, like Robotic Industries Association safety compliance."


T-Drill is on a similar path.


"We quote systems that incorporate many other equipment builders' machines, but in the end we have the responsibility for all of it," he said. "Contracts these days usually specify a single source for all maintenance and repair work." This means the integrator has many more duties than before, but it streamlines problem-solving and troubleshooting by assigning these roles to a single company rather than diluting the role by spreading it out among every equipment manufacturer that contributed.


Stokes's view, which incorporates a perspective from other industries, is a preview of some concepts and technologies other than automation that likewise have the potential to make manufacturing more efficient.


"Construction companies use a lot of rented equipment, like forklifts and scissor lifts, and these days they can use GPS to track movements and utilization," he said. "Also, by tracking the number of minutes a battery-powered saw is in use, they can determine when they should send a runner with an extra battery or two and some new blades so the worker doesn't have to stop." DeWalt's Tool Connect and Milwaukee's ONE-KEY have such features, which allow management personnel to track the company's inventory of tools, equipment, and materials; see who most recently checked out a specific tool; customize the tool’s settings; and perform remote diagnostics.


Similar concepts are already in use by fabricating equipment manufacturer TRUMPF in its Smart Factory, a showcase of connected technology for metal fabrication in Hoffman Estates, Ill. Extensive use of Industry 4.0 technology assists uninterrupted production—automatically guided vehicles bring raw materials to machines when they are running low, and RFID technology allows the company's system to track the progress of every bin or cart of raw material or work in process as it makes its way through the factory. Better still, any customer with access to WiFi can log in from anywhere in the world to track an order.


Industry 4.0 can be an integral part of automation, but an automated system doesn't require Industry 4.0 capability to be successful. A system can run just fine without the ability to digitize reams of data. That said, designing machines that are ready for Industry 4.0 integration isn't a bad idea. The key is to include an application programming interface (API) in the system's design and construction.


"We don't ship anything without an API these days." Stokes said.


Job Killer or Job Saver?

Equipment builder T-Drill Industries Inc., Norcross, Ga., has been making great strides in automating its collaring and cutting machines. Built to form collars in copper pipe for making manifold systems, its machines traditionally were manually loaded and operated. When a mechanical contractor approached the company about a programmable and automated system, T-Drill readily invested countless hours in developing a system with substantial capabilities. Fed information from CSV files, it cuts pipes to length, applies QR labels, and uses a diverter table to segregate the parts into various bins. An operator uses a hand-held unit to read the QR labels for subsequent processing.


"On the day the machine was set up in the shop, one of the workers put a banner that said 'Job Killer 5000' above the machine," said Applications Engineer Carroll Stokes. That didn't last long.


When the workers realized they'd no longer have to go through stacks of part prints, use a tape measure to mark pipe lengths, use a chop saw to make the cuts, run the collaring machine manually, and apply labels by hand to the pipes, the view of the machine changed dramatically. Making parts in the shop faster than before—six times faster than before—meant they would spend proportionally more time doing the work they were trained to do, installing plumbing systems in the field.


Several months later, the company implemented a plan to move to a new building. A T-Drill team decommissioned the machine and prepared to move it to the new location, but the company hit a snag that took several weeks to resolve. According to Stokes, many of the workers took an extremely keen interest in knowing when the machine would be up and running again. It was apparent that they didn’t want to do their jobs without the machine formerly known as a job killer.


Reasons for Automation

Manufacturers of all sorts have had to deal with the skilled labor shortage for years.


"Automation is definitely needed now," said Ron Bochat, sales engineer for Innovo Corp. "The workforce just isn't there."The era in which a young man worked in a factory six long days a week to support a wife and children aren't gone completely, but other career choices, many that are less arduous, have sapped the labor force available to manufacturers.


Dealing with the worker shortage is especially daunting considering the sheer volume of manufactured goods that are made and sold in the U.S., which has the third largest population in the world and the seventh highest per-capita income. Relative to most of the rest of the world, the U.S. is a large and wealthy country, one with a nearly insatiable appetite for manufactured goods.


"When you look at all the products available in the big box stores, you realize how badly the manufacturers need suppliers that make vast amounts of intermediate goods to keep up with demand," Bochat said.


"A fabricator often needs automation to keep up with the demands of an OEM customer," agreed Matt Phillips, automation president for Tooling Technology Group. Speed is the key in nearly every industry, but especially automotive, one of the company's primary markets.


Depending on the industry, automation helps to deal with two simultaneous trends that work against fabricators: rising demand and falling profitability.


"In the automotive supply chain, suppliers are always squeezed to get more for less," Phillips said. "You can drive down raw material costs only so far. Then it's a matter of faster production with fewer defects to drive out excess cost."


Finally, automation can help combat two of the main issues regarding manual work.


"If a manually produced component or an assembly is complicated, quality can vary quite a bit," Phillips said. "t depends on what's on the operator's mind that day. If a part is simple and repetitive, it's a good candidate for manual processing, because the operator can master it. The downside is that this can lead to repetitive stress injuries."


Source: the fabricator