by Noelle Stapinsky
Canada’s job shops are expanding with increased automation, putting them on the path to a fully autonomous future
The ideas and concepts around Industry 4.0 and the Internet of things (IOT) have been hot topic for some time. In today’s fabrication world, many have embraced automated or semi-automated cells. Be it laser, punch, press or welding technology, the return on investment (ROI) of taking a process that once took hours and can now be accomplished in minutes is undeniable. But while the focus was once on investing in machine cells to cure bottlenecks, the longer conversation technology providers are having with customers is about automating the downstream process to maintain an optimum workflow on the shop floor.
The cutting edge
Everyone knows laser cutting is fast, efficient, and there are many power options to suit pretty much any process. Bystronic’s BySmart Fiber Laser, one of its best selling machines in North America, offers laser power up to 10 kW. And its ByStar now ranges up to 15 kW.
“When I started with Bystronic four years ago, we had just come out with the 10 kW, which was a significant leap in productivity and capability. We are seeing that again with the 15kW,” says Brendon DiVincenzo, laser and automation product manager for Bystronic. “The power of these machines has driven the market in the past five years. If you go back 10 years, you were probably using a 4 kW C02 laser that could cut ¼-inch steel at 110 inches per minute. Now with the 15 kW, we’re cutting at 700 inches per minute. The same machine size and footprint is now processing the same work seven times faster and it costs less to own due to the inherent ability of fiber laser sources.”
Today’s fiber laser technology goes beyond the speed of the machine. “Once you get to a certain point, the inch per minute feed rate doesn’t matter as much. What you need to be looking at is outside of that machine and how materials are removed from it and moved to the next step. That is really what determines the velocity of how fast it is,” says DiVincenzo. “We used to spend a lot of time selling the laser machines. Now we might talk about power and application for about 15 minutes, and then spend a lot of time talking about automation for material flow, data and software, which is a far more impactful decision that needs to be made by the shop floor. If you don’t look at that you’re not going to be able to effectively realize a good ROI for a laser cutting system machine because it’s going to sit idle if you don’t have material ready to load on the machine or you haven’t pulled parts off fast enough.”
On the upstream side, shops could consider a raw material storage tower system. But the real game changer that Bystronic is seeing is with the offloading process. Its BySort is an automated storage system that robotically removes, sorts, stacks and stores the parts. DiVincenzo says such a system can store the parts in a tower, which frees up precious shop floor space and parts can be accessed on demand regardless of what order they were processed.
LVD Strippit offers single-head and turret style punching machines in hydraulic and servo-electric drive models, as well a punch laser combination equipment. It’s Strippit PX punch press is able to punch, form, tap and bend, allowing fabricators to complete more operations on one machine, which saves production time, secondary operations and material handling processes.
“Automation is now a part of every sales conversation because fabricators need to be more efficient and optimize process flow. Automation fills that need,” says Dan Caprio, punching product sales manager for LVD North America. “Sheet metal shops are working with small batches, complex parts, short lead times, tight margins, and now, the added pressures that have come with a worldwide pandemic. Handling of sheets or parts and a shortage of skilled labour plays into the desire to automate, but the overall driver is the need to improve and speed up the process flow. This means finding better and faster ways of getting from ‘art’ to ‘part’.”
LVD’s punching machines are available in standalone or automatic load/unload and full material handling configurations. “Increasingly, we find that fabricators are interested in some level of automation. This may be a simple push/pull auto-load system, but it can also be as sophisticated as a full tower automation or warehousing system,” says Caprio.
In the past year, LVD launched its MOVit line of automation systems. “These are new Tower Automation System (TAS) and Warehouse Automation System (WAS) for our laser cutting and punching equipment that have come as a result of our acquisition of COMPAC S.r.l, an industrial automation solutions provider,” says Caprio. “The configuration of a MOVit system is highly customizable and these units are also retrofitable. Our focus is on providing the right automation solution for the user and that’s why these systems offer so many custom layouts. The TAS unit has more than 16 possible configurations.”
Caprio points out that fabricators may not realize there are more modular automation options now than ever before. “Most clients generally opt to install the “base” automation system in one step, such as a laser with load/unload and warehouse, for example. Some choose to expand the system at a later date by adding another machine. Modularity gives you that choice, enabling the fabricator to balance the cost versus benefit equation. We tell customers it’s best to be flexible. Start with a system that is designed in a modular way that can be added to as the future demands. In this way, the automation grows with your needs.”
Marcel Fiedler, bending and automation product manager for Bystronic, says automation for press brakes is becoming a bigger topic. “The driving factor for automation is related to material handling. That is one of the key elements that people are trying to eliminate. If you’re working 40 hours a week on a press brake, lifting 50 to 60-pounds of parts every day, it’s really a health impact on operators.”
“Of course, there are operators that are afraid automation is going to replace jobs. That is not the case. There are certain responsibilities of the operator, such as making sure the robotic cell is running properly, that it has parts ready to go, and it knows what the next jobs are. It’s more of a supervisor position,” adds Fiedler.
Bystronic’s Mobile Bending Cell is an easy automated upgrade for its Xpert 40 and 80 press brakes. DiVincenzo says that this technology has been one of Bystronic’s most popular in the last calendar year due to COVID. “It’s a small robot that hooks up to our Xpert 40 and 80 press brakes making them fully automated self-contained production cells. The beauty of that is that you can use the press brake by itself during the day for smaller jobs and then use the Mobile Bending Cell for longer part runs during lights out production. Or you can have one operator tending to multiple robots and now you have a fully automated, consistent production coming off of those cells with a minimum of labour attached to that process.”
For its Xpert Pro Series, Bystronic offers a modular tool changer. Tooling for press brakes can often be as heavy as the parts being produced. “This allows operators to ensure they have the parts ready for the next job and do the quality inspections,” says Fiedler. “This tool changer technology is about 10 per cent faster than an operator. That doesn’t mean it’s much faster than an operator physically moving tooling. It’s more about the tooling set up. For jobs that are more complicated like when you’re bending a panel or box that has flanges going in every direction. It’s important that the tool is set up perfectly. That usually requires the operator to open the clamping, move the tools into the correct position, check it and make sure it’s lining up properly, or maybe reposition it. With automation you’re saving all those steps because the robot will place it perfectly.”
Another big trend for bending automation is with offline programming. “One of the challenges for bending operations is that the geometry of the part is physically changing, so the handling of the robot has to be programmed step-by-step,” says Fiedler. “We’ve created a software called Robot Manager that allows someone who’s never touched a robot to be able to program it.”
Fiedler points out that the average press brake operator is 66-years-old and getting close to retirement. All of that knowledge about bending, the calculations and what tools to use might not get passed on to the new generation of workers. “So we made this software so intuitive that anyone that can operate a smart phone is able to operate a press brake and program the robot.”
Automated and robotic welding solutions supplier Fronius is seeing a significant uptick in demand for various levels of automation. Of course, the automotive industry has been the early adopter of automated welding cells. But Andrew Newman, Fronius’ senior welding application technologist, says they’re seeing increasing general industry interest for more unique applications. And it’s not just about the speed of the process, but more about the quality and repeatability.
“Adding a robot or track or a hard automation system is not always necessarily about speed,” says Newman. “We recently had a customer that made medical components. “They didn’t care how many they made. Obviously they needed a certain number, but what they were doing is taking a manual process and making it more consistent. That is what was important to them.”
And depending on the process needs, automated welding solutions are fully customizable. How companies want to use such technology, Newman says the sky is the limit.
On its Cold Welding Transfer (CMT) package system, Fronius offers WireSense, an assistance vision system that uses the wire electrode as a sensor to check the component position before each weld. “Essentially, we apply a small voltage to the end or the wire, oscillating that wire forward and backward at a very high frequency. We can actually search for small changes, detect if the part is moving, or if there’s a gap now present that wasn’t there before,” says Newman. “We can shift the weld path if needed or switch programs. It could be something as simple as switching the wire feed, changing the travel speed of the robot or making other small adjustments. You could be using a pulse welding process, but need to switch over to a CMT. It depends on the application.”
Fronius’ LaserHybrid combines industrial scale MIG and laser-beam welding processes, which is geared toward a variety of applications. For the automotive industry, while it provides speed gains, it also reduces part distortion due to lower heat input and lower consumption of wire and gas. “We are increasingly seeing this being used for the Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV) frame of the battery tray, which are typically aluminum,” says Newman. “This can help achieve faster speeds, less distortion, increased gab bridge ability and less weld spatter.”
For shipbuilders, Newman says they’re typically looking at higher disposition rates versus higher travel speeds. But it could also include lower heat input based on joint design changes for less welding and lower heat inputs. “This is especially important for some of the higher strength fine grain steels.”
As more job shops grow their automation to increase efficiencies, the path to an autonomous smart factory is becoming more of a reality. Fiedler says the vision of material entering a building and going through all of the processes without any physical human interaction is where the industry is headed. And the focus is shifting to optimizing operator potential by monitoring quality rather than going home with a hurting back at the end of the day. SMT