by Kip Hanson | Photos by David Afriat
Quebec aerospace supplier takes five axis machining to the next level and beyond
Robots have become the standard solution for most production manufacturing environments, but how often do you see them being used for low volume job shop work? If you visit Tier III aircraft supplier Avior Integrated Products Inc., you’ll see exactly that and more. That’s because this three-facility, 230 employee supplier to Bombardier, Boeing, Bell Helicopter, and others has developed its own custom built robotic machining cell that raises the bar on what’s possible.
Jean-Michel Biron, business unit director at Avior Integrated Products Inc., says it started with the company’s purchase of a Matsuura MX-520 five axis machining centre from Elliott Masuura Canada in the fall of 2017. It wasn’t their first five axis, nor their first Matsuura. Avior has nineteen CNC machining centres and lathes in all, including a Matsuura MAM72-100H five axis horizontal, a Matsuura VX-1500 three axis vertical, and a two machine, 24-pallet flexible manufacturing system (FMS) from Mazak.
Soon after the Matsuura MX-520 arrived, the Avior manufacturing team decided to automate it, this despite the fact that most of their jobs—though regular repeaters—are low quantity, somewhere in the 10 to 20-piece range depending on the contract. They also decided to join the new Matsuura machine with a Mazak three axis vertical machining centre to create a palletized, lights out machining cell.
There was one problem. After researching the available options, they were unable to find a suitable, off-the-shelf robot. Not giving up, they turned to automation provider Automation Éclair, makers of the turnkey PartNR robotic material handling cell. “We couldn’t use their standard system because of the reach and payload requirements that come with tending two machines, but we did use many of the same components as well as their extensive integration experience,” says Biron.
Sailing uncharted waters
There’s much more to setting up an automated machining cell than installing a robot and a couple of conveyors, though. Avior needed to develop a palletization system that would commonize the workholding between the two machines. And each machine had to be equipped with the usual suspects found in most such cells, namely in-process probing, broken tool detection, and large capacity tool magazines.
Avior also had to give a great deal of thought to the parts that would flow through the cell, and what cutting tools would be needed to cut them. “We set everything up in such a way that we never have to change the workholding, and the only time we change a tool is when it’s worn out or broken,” Biron explains. “Every NC program is stored in the machine, and we can run several dozen different part numbers in very low quantities with zero setup time. You can think of the cell as a combination FMS and automatic parts-loading system.”
But here’s the cool part. Because Avior has a “really strong IT team,” they also developed their own barcoding system, which reads whatever part comes along on the conveyor and then tells the machine control which program to use. And because the system is tied to an external database, it also tells the robot what size raw material block is being used, amd the robot adjusts its grippers automatically. Parts can be loaded at random on either conveyor, and if the operator accidentally loads a blank intended for the Matsuura onto the Mazak conveyor (or vice-versa), the robot will recognize this and simply place the blank in the correct queue.
There have been other adjustments. Biron says the Avior production team put great effort into standardizing their setups wherever possible, and because of this, some of the operating parameters had to be changed to accommodate both the clamping method and the cutting tools used. But considering the ability to run any number of parts at a moment’s notice while incurring virtually zero downtime, the benefits easily outweigh any disadvantages. “The goal is to never stop the cell, but in order to accomplish this, you definitely need to change a few things, starting with your way of thinking about your products, your processes, and your people,” Biron notes.
Some may be wondering: with a 24-pallet FMS available, why go through all the hoops to automate a pair of vertical machining centres, regardless of their quality or capabilities? “The FMS definitely has its place,” says Biron. “With castings and forgings, for example, you really need to load those by hand onto a pallet and then stick it into the FMS, whereas less complex parts, smaller parts, and parts made from orthogonal blocks of material work best in the automation cell. For us, it’s nice to have a combination of both, as it makes us even more flexible.”
The cell is admittedly new and the Avior team is still tweaking things, but the ROI is already clear—Biron says their goal going into the project was four hours of labour to run both machines for 24 hours, and thus far their calculations have proven accurate. In fact, the company plans to build another, similar cell in the near future. But perhaps the best news is that, contrary to the early fears of employee layoffs at the news that robots were coming to the production floor, the reality has been anything but.
“We met with our employees at the start of the project to assure them no one was going to lose their job to a robot, and we’ve stuck by that promise,” he says. “In fact, the automation cell has made us more competitive—allowing us to gain additional contracts, offer lower prices, and provide better service to our customers. So the results have been the opposite of what many people expected.” SMT