A Quebec manufacturer’s embrace of robotics pays off
When Laurent Gravel, president of Group Gravel, Marieville, QC, took a step back to examine his manufacturing business and how best to position it for future success, he created a new vision: create an integrated, turnkey manufacturing operation from design to build.
It was an ambitious plan because Groupe Gravel’s manufacturing operation was unique, consisting of a full service CNC machining operation and sheet metal fabricating and welding operations. In the 1990s, he implemented offline programming for the CNC machining shop’s milling and turning centres. Then in 2013, he turned his focus on the company’s plasma cutting and welding operations.
“We had experience working in CNC and we wanted to bring CNC-like capabilities to cutting and welding of batch sizes of one-off parts. We were looking for precision and quality to get it right the first time with a minimum number of operations and handling. That meant speed, accuracy, and programming as well as improvements in production,” explains Gravel.
The solution was a robotic workcell for plasma cutting and welding. It took Group Gravel two years to get the cell up and running with the help of AGT, a Quebec based robotics integrator and Robotmaster, part of Hyptherm’s robotic software team. The cell consists of a Fanuc M-710 iC/20L long-arm robot with a 3 m (10 ft) reach. The robot was integrated with an ESAB ESP-150 Plasmarc plasma cutting system and a Lincoln Electric Power Wave 455M robotic arc welding package. Shortly after the installation, Group Gravel added a two axis positioner with a half ton payload for welding and cutting of tubular parts.
Jacques Gravel, Laurent’s father, formed the business in 1974 as Jacques Gravel Inc. Through the years the company witnessed steady growth and transitioned into the multi-faceted manufacturing operation that exists today.
It has grown from a 1,000 sq ft facility to a 20,000 sq ft one and employs 30 people. The company offers in-house design engineering, reverse engineering, machining, welding, cutting, millwright work, quality testing and inspection. The shop focuses on small runs, from one-offs to lots of a maximum of ten.
No robotics experience, no problem
Some manufacturers regard robots and robotic systems with trepidation, especially if they’re unfamiliar with the technology. Not so for Groupe Gravel. The transition to robotic cutting and welding and associated programming was an easy one, thanks in large part to Robotmaster’s CAD/CAM software, says Gravel.
“Robotmaster’s understanding our process was crucial. Without Robotmaster, we simply couldn’t have done it.”
Indeed, within five days of training with Robotmaster staff, Laurent Gravel and his staff were programming their robot. The Robotmaster offline programming software enables quick path creation from a CAD model and sets optimal tool orientations for cutting and welding automatically. An important element of the software that Gravel points out is RISE–the Robotmster Interactive Simulation Environment. The function allows users to modify the robot’s positions and trajectories, manually or automatically using a mouse. A key element is the ability to customize the programming of complex arc welding parameters. At Groupe Gravel’s facility, screens provide customization of the weld start and end commands, for selection of the welding schedule number, and for controlling weaving and seam tracking.
When Group Gravel added the two axis rotary positioner six months after installation of the robotic workcell, the Robotmaster rotary axis management tools enabled the company to program in either fixed indexing mode or in simultaneous seven and eight axis motion. The tools also aided in the integration of the robot and the rotary axis control to optimize the process.
Gravel says the company has increased production efficiencies–it reduced programming time from six hours to 90 minutes for some parts–and he credits Robotmaster and its team with helping his company and his employees ease into robotic automation.
“So we didn’t have any robotic experience…we couldn’t have moved up the learning curve to where we are today so quickly without Robotmaster and the help of their team. Eighty per cent of our industries are small businesses like ourselves. Like us, they don’t have the technical capabilities needed to use conventional robot automation. Robotmaster is the only way a shop like ours wins.”
Groupe Gravel is looking at further expansion, says Gravel. It’s considering the purchase of another robot dedicated to 3D plasma cutting and is looking into flexible robot fixturing for its robotic welding cell. SMT
Written by Mary Scianna with supporting information from Robotmaster, part of Hypertherm’s Robotic Software Team.