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The automation edge
Robots are a key tool for remaining competitive in times like these.
Feb/March 2009
Plastics in Canada Magazine

    SAS Automation's RFID system for end-of-arm tooling.

What can automation offer a molder today? The average shop is looking at tight acquisition budgets and as many gloomy predictions about 2009 as last year there were upbeat ones. And all that means any purchase needs careful justification.

Sepro America LLC (Pittsburgh, Pa.), formerly a joint-venture of French-based Sepro with Conair (Pittsburgh, Pa.), is following a common tendency in offering two robot ranges: the moderately priced Axess robots, for the simpler pick and place applications' and its more capable Generation IV robots, which offer additional control capabilities, higher speeds and the ability to tie in with peripheral equipment.

"You don't see this same pricing differential in automation systems that integrate robots, conveyors and peripheral equipment into a manufacturing cell," says Jim Healy vice-president of sales and marketing. "The specifications (and cost) of these systems tend to be very applications-driven. However, as we have gained more and more experience with them, the engineering requirements and the cost to the customer have been trending level or downward, even as the capabilities, of the systems increase."

Quick-change tooling has been improving since the 1990s, and Sepro today offers quick-change tooling, plates on its robots as standard features. It also offers quick-disconnects on electrical and pneumatic lines.

"We can also offer an ID system that automatically verifies that die EOAT on the robot matches the mold that it is to be used with, and that the robot program is installed," he says, "In fact, tooling changes and robot set-up can usually be accomplished in less time than it takes to change a mold and adjust machine settings. When it comes to changing jobs these days, die delays are more on the molding machine side, not on the robot side."

John Westbeld, engineering manager at SAS Automation (Xenia, Ohio) observes that complexity in molding cells and systems is increasing.

"Costs are decreasing, but not complexity," he says. "It seems to be the trend from our vantage point that molders are trying to automate systems that they would not have considered before. The reasons for automating are the same—labor costs, quality, and ergonomics—but the drive to decrease costs to be competitive has increased."

SAS specializes in quick-change systems for EOAT. In the second half of 2008, the company began offering EOAT with RFID tags to automatically ensure the correct tooling is operating with the corresponding operation and equipment.

SAS has applied an RFID tag in an EOAT mounting plate, Westbeld says, that can identify itself when mounted and installed on a standard quick change mounting chuck, which mounts to the robot. Important features of this system are that it identifies the correct robotic EOAT gripper is mounted to the robot running the applicable program and confirms the rest of the critical equipment is installed. This includes the correct die or mold in stamping, plastics or packaging operations.

RFID, he notes, is low-cost insurance against robot, tooling and part damage because it quickly ensures the correct tooling is running. RFID tags prevent costly damage due to system crashes, reduce labor costs, and are critical during line changeovers.

Engel Canada (Guelph, Ont.) has also broadened its EOAT quick-change offering with a manual system with a dovetail, that uses two wing-nuts for mounting and dismounting.

"Not much has changed in the EOAT itself," says automation manager Harold Luttmann, "but this system costs just hundreds of dollars, whereas a full quick-change system from most suppliers can run into the thousands."

"Rather than designing a cell to run one specific application or part, we are designing systems that are more modular, to be able to run multiple applications with simple adjustments."

Another recent innovation from Engel is a color touch screen on its new RC-200 control. This control pendant allows the setting of all robot, as well as machine parameters, when integrated through the injection molding machine.

"This opens up the ergonomics of the control," Luttmann says, "allowing the operator to set up processing parameters from anywhere within reach of the hand pendant. Normally, this can only be done from in front of the machine controller."

Wittmann is another supplier that has improved its quick-change system. Christian Weiss, technical sales, robots and automation with Wittmann Canada (Richmond Hill, Ont.) says the new system is both less expensive than its predecessor, and works better.

"We previously used a dovetail style slide, but that design had a tendency to jam," he says. "We've changed to a two-piece cam lock with built-in fittings for up to 10 parts. The two component halves mate together, and then there's a lock that holds the EOAT."

Vacuum cups for EOAT have been improved to the point they don't have their old tendency to mark parts, he adds.

"The new cups are quicker in their action," he says, "and the repeatability of the robot with suction cups is distinctly increased."

There are spring-loaded compensators on the cups. The robot moves with the ejector strike, and takes away the parts in one motion, preventing EOAT damage from unsynchronized ejector strokes. Over a year's production, this offers considerable cycle savings.

Tying robots directly into the injection molding machine control offers obvious advantages, and Wittmann now offers this with its new R8 robot controls, shown at the recent Expoplast show in Montreal, and with the Battenfeld line of injection presses its parent company now owns. This capability, which links the controls of the robots with Battenfeld's Unilog B6 control, was first shown at last year's Fakuma show in Germany.

And on the IML side, Wittmann offers its W717 top-entry robot for IML is designed for customers wanting to probe this technology before investing in expensive dedicated systems.

"It purely places the label into the mold," Weiss says, "but it doesn't remove the finished part. It allows you to get into IML, and test the market."

Engel has also seen growth in IML. It shipped two systems in the last part of 2008, one to the US and one to a Canadian customer.

While there's an obvious reluctance to spend by most processors right now, automation continues to be one area where the logic of faster and more precise manufacturing is inescapable. Fast, high-end robots offer one approach to the problems of cost-efficiency, but there are also low-cost solutions available.

Designed arid used properly, these can yield the dramatic improvements in productivity that make the difference between a plant that is no longer viable, and one that is still around when the economy is growing again.


About SAS Automation

SAS is a leading supplier of modular EOAT components and robotic gripper systems – capable of servicing any part and any robot. SAS manufactures in the U.S. “get a grip!”, and distributes “nip it!” Nile sprue nipper line, and “GRIP IT!“ Asian chucking/gripper line. SAS is ISO 9001:2000 Quality Certified and specialists in robotic end-of-arm tooling & gripper systems, sprue nippers, CNC degating & Insert Mold tooling for manufacturing, packaging & plastics industries. 

SAS Automation, LLC
1200 South Patton Street
Xenia, OH 45385 USA
Email: getagrip@sasgripper.com
TEL: (937) 372-5255
FAX: (937) 372-5555
SAS Automation Robotergreifsysteme GmbH - Europe
Im Schlehert 26
D-76187 Karlsruhe, Germany
Tel: +49 (0)721 26306 - 0
Email: info@sas-automation.com
Web: www.sas-automation.com

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