Tending CNC machine tools is boring work. Maybe a robot should do it.

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By Kip Hanson

The job is set up, the first article’s approved. Yes, someone needs to keep an eye on the cutting tools and measure key part features from time to time, but most of what remains is a few hours, a few days, or maybe a few weeks of loading blanks and removing finished workpieces. It’s dull, repetitive work, a chore that most industry experts will tell you is perfect for a robot or cobot. 

Flexing your muscles
They’re right. Better yet, what they suggest is easier and more affordable than ever before. That’s because manufacturers can now eliminate much or all of the non-robot stuff that goes with a typical machine tending installation—the guarding, conveyors, safety interlocks, etc.—by opting for one of the systems described below, both of which were developed by companies familiar with the needs of CNC lathe and machining centre owners. 

Agile Robotics Systems is owned by John Hart in Australia. They’re first and foremost a CNC machine tool distributor and have been in the industry for over 70 years and following a surge in demand from the automotive market, they opened an automation division in 1983. The first Flex system came online at IMTS 2018.

That’s according to Agile general manager Tom Ruberg, who joined the company soon after the product’s introduction to the North American market. He says the Flex series of CNC loading systems was designed “by machine tool people, for machine tool people,” breaking the long-held paradigm that automation is a mysterious world, one with its own unique language that requires extensive training for anyone wishing to learn it. 

“Shop owners are well aware that sending people offsite to learn robot programming is expensive,” says Ruberg. “You have the travel and training costs, downtime while the employee is away, and once they’re trained up, guess what? You’d better get them busy training their coworkers; if not, you’ll have to start over if they leave the company. Our system is simple enough to use that an hour or two of onsite orientation is all that’s needed.”

Employee loyalty aside, the Flex series is representative of a new class of machine-tending robots. Fenceless, compact, flexible, and configurable—these are some of the adjectives associated with these standalone, largely plug-and-play drawer-style systems, all of which promise that their owners will be making parts in far less time than with the traditional, integrator-dependent approach to automation. 

The Flex series of drawer-style CNC loading systems is said to be designed by machine tool people, for machine tool people. Image: Agile Robotic Systems

Reach for the stars
Gosiger Automation is another provider of drawer-style systems. Like Australia’s John Hart, the U.S.-based machine distributor saw a need for easily implemented, relatively low-cost machine tending solutions, so developed the Load and Go line of products and has since spun it off into a separate company, Automation Within Reach (AWR)

Arie Thompson is the director of sales at Gosiger Automation. He likes to repeat the words of Henry Ford, who once noted that “if you need a machine and don’t buy it, then you will ultimately find that you have paid for it and don’t have it.”

Those are fine words, and they’re just as true of machine-tending robots today as they were of Ford’s newfangled assembly line more than a century ago, a fact that Thompson learned to appreciate early on in his career. “I worked in a small, family-owned machine shop during college and came to understand many of the challenges they face,” he says. “Labour costs and availability are high on the list.”

Although the Load and Go’s mechanisms and mode of operation differ from Agile Robotics’ Flex, the concept is essentially the same—a self-contained cellular system that sits in front of a CNC lathe or machining centre and is equipped with a series of configurable drawers, from which the robot removes raw material for machining and replaces it with finished parts. There’s no need for conveyors, fixed cages, and weeks of integration like there is with conventional machine tending robots, and as with competing systems, the Load and Go promises easy operation. 

“Gosiger has automated close to 2,000 machine tools over the past three decades, so we’re quite familiar with the need for and value of custom automation,” says Thompson. “However, the AWR Load and Go provides an intuitive, user-friendly, and for the most part, off-the-shelf alternative. You can plug them in and literally get to work within hours, so shops can enjoy the fruits of their investment much more quickly.”

The AWR Load and Go provides an intuitive, user-friendly, and for the most part, off-the-shelf alternative to traditional robotic installations. 
Image: Automation Within Reach

Eyes for the blind 
For those who’d prefer to randomly place their raw material on a bench and avoid all this talk of configurable drawers, you have options. Kristian Hulgard, general manager of Denmark-based OnRobot’s Americas Division in Irving, Texas, explains that vision systems are not only making robots more capable, but much less dependent on the structured part presentation that has long been a requirement of the automation industry. 

“We recently introduced a 2.5D vision system called OnRobot Eyes,” says Hulgard. “It’s used for relatively simple applications such as machine loading and unloading where you want to get rid of the fixture.” He laughs. “We’re not yet at the point where you can consistently pick random parts out of a bin—that’s kind of the Holy Grail for this type of system—but it’s getting close. Machine vision is becoming very powerful.”

When not searching for the Holy Grail, Hulgard and his colleagues at OnRobot work on less lofty though equally important robotic products and accessories. These include a wide range of programmable electric, sanders and screwdrivers, quick-change mounts, and the company’s D:PLOY software platform, designed to automate “the building, running, monitoring, and deployment of collaborative applications.”

On Robot’s D:PLOY software platform promises to automate the building, running, monitoring, and deployment of collaborative robot applications.
Image: OnRobot

Says Hulgard, “Talk to anyone—the skills gap is growing, the labour problem isn’t going away; in fact, the current reshoring trend and the push to bring manufacturing back to the West will only make matters worse. The industry is ready for a change and shop owners have begun to realize that automation is the solution, but it hasn’t been until quite recently that it’s reached a level of simplicity that practically anyone can use it. That, and the technology has advanced to the point that we and others can solve whatever application challenges come our way faster, easier, and less expensively than ever before. How can a CNC machine shop owner, sheet metal fabricator, plastic injection molding house, or anyoneelse in manufacturing not embrace it?” SMT

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