Thick, heavy, and complex parts like these are standard fare at Carriere Industrial Supply.Click image to enlarge  

Faced with long setup times, low production volumes, and heavy, complex parts that are difficult to cut by hand, this Canadian manufacturer came up with a unique and highly automated solution

by Kip Hanson

Carriere Industrial Supply (CIS) Ltd. of Sudbury, Ont., is a global manufacturer of industrial equipment. From shovel buckets and haul truck bodies to equipment liners and weld overlays, this 58-year-old company provides a wide array of innovative products for the mining, forestry, and construction industries, practically all of which serve as upgrades, repairs, or retrofits to existing equipment. 

Many of these are made of hardened steel that must be cut, formed, trimmed, and then welded into the final assembly. Material thicknesses range from 3 mm (0.125 in.) sheet to 150 mm (6.0 in.) thick plate, with some assemblies many metres in length and weighing as much as 50 metric tonnes. It’s tough, demanding work that has only become more challenging as production quantities fall and skilled labor grows increasingly scarce. 

The edge quality provided by the CIS plasma system is so good that grinding and cleanup work has largely been eliminated.Click image to enlargeAddressing the need
“Most of what we do here is for earth-moving equipment and underground mining applications,” says Pierre Levesque, manager of information and corporate technology at CIS. “That includes steel cladding with liners for abrasion-resistance applications, using quenched and tempered steel grades many manufacturers would consider exotic. It’s also very low-volume, high-mix production. We blank out most of it on a CNC plasma table and then form everything to the required shape, but the problem has always been what comes after—the trimming must either be done by hand or with a tracked device known as a bug. Both are very time-consuming and less accurate than we would like. And once they’re trimmed, you’re left with these huge, heavy parts that often require many hours of grinding to dress up manually cut edges. That’s what got us thinking about automation.” 

Due to the low part volumes and effort required to program cutting paths on the production floor, Levesque knew that traditional robotic cutting and welding cells were not an option. CIS needed a way to easily program a robot to do the work and operate alongside humans without cages or other fixed guarding. Only a collaborative robot—or cobot—would do. 

Customising the cobot
Levesque and his team began their journey by turning to Universal Robots distributor Advanced Motion and Controls, Barrie, Ont., who recommended a UR10e 6-axis robotic arm. With a payload capability of 10 kg (22 lbs.) and 1300 mm (51.2 in.) reach, the cobot is powerful enough to handle a Hypertherm Powermax 125 plasma head and, when attached to a moveable platform from industrial automation specialist Vention Inc. in Montreal, has the capacity needed to address a large share of CIS’ part mix. 

It wasn’t as simple as installing a robot and showing it the ropes, however. They first needed to give their new droid some superpowers. That task fell to software engineer Mason Fraser, who used the Java programming language to develop a “very sophisticated interface to the UR robot that grabs our drawings from the file server, parses through them to determine the correct cut paths, and then applies these to the workpiece,” says Levesque. “Employing user frames to anchor the three-dimensional part in the real world essentially tells the robot where to go and how to apply the trimming pathway from our CAD file.”

Fraser notes that there was more to his project than the creation of an auto-programming function. Because the parts are quite large, and due to thermal and material stresses they often have an unexpected twist or bend to them, he couldn’t simply apply cut paths based on CAD information alone—he needed a way to compensate for these significant geometry differences in real-time: an automatic torch height control system. “That was actually one of the most challenging aspects to all this,” says Fraser. “I had to create a PID [proportional–integral–derivative] function that monitors voltage during the cut and sends feedback to the UR controller to adjust the height accordingly. That part alone took us several weeks to figure out and we had to make some hardware adjustments, but in the end, it worked out perfectly.”

CIS software developer Mason Fraser used the Java programming language to create the UR interface and associated operating logic, largely automating the setup process.Click image to enlargeCleaning up
There was plenty more to the project. Technical shop resource Adam Fournier increased the UR10e’s working range with a mobile cart and—in order to meet Canada’s  stringent safety standards—an integrated safety system tied to light curtains or an area scanner, depending on cell placement. The result, however, is a very capable system that has provided CIS with an impressive return on its year-long investment. 

On a recent job trimming truck bodies, for example, operations that once took 50 hours to complete have been reduced to less than 12 hours. Multiplied by the 30 units CIS expects to produce over the next three years, the company will save more than 1000 hours on that order alone. Somewhat surprisingly, most of this is due to reduced grind and cleanup time. “That part of it is now pretty much non-existent, the edge quality is that much better,” says Levesque. “It’s also much easier to set up. Even a less-skilled operator can simply enter a few parameters, touch the robot off in three locations, and turn it loose.”

Those on the shop floor have been equally impressed. A post from supervisor Don Macdonald’s Yammer account (a corporate messaging platform) stated that, “We barely have to run a buffing pad over the edges. You just chip off the dross on the bottom and the parts are ready for fabrication. Our traditional method was easily taking an hour apiece. That’s a huge saving in time and effort!”

As noted at the beginning of this story, CIS also does extensive welding. Levesque, Fraser, and Fournier are currently working on a robotic solution for that application as well, and hope to cut processing times in half by having a cobot work side by side with a human welder. They’ve also expanded the use of their plasma system by using it to cut complex bevels, an unexpected bonus. Says Levesque, “No one enjoys having to spend hours cleaning up a part because the cut quality was poor, so the people on the shop floor appreciate the new system. Everyone’s been trained on the UR and they’re always looking for new ways to put it to use. It’s been a great success all around.” SMT

  Photos by Carriere Industrial Supply (CIS)

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