Two fabricators expand operations with the help of robotic innovation
January 2012 - Expanding a business into new markets is not an easy transition. Reassessing current operations and figuring out which methods will work and which will not can be difficult. Equipment that allows for unmanned tasks can be both time saving and cost effective, because large, sometimes cumbersome jobs can slow operations or hinder product line expansion.
“A lot of parts we’re getting into nowadays are big and heavy,” says Allen Guernsey, system administrator at Mid-West Machine Products Inc., Golden, Colo. “Two-man operations are now robotically done,” Guernsey says. “We use heavy pieces of sheet metal and put them into a press brake that bends the metal. The robot talks to the press brake and positions it, accurately putting in the bends.”
Mid-West is a job shop that manufactures air conditioners, road construction signs, mannequin stands—even the wheels on steam cleaning vans. The company uses robotic technology from Yaskawa America Inc., Motoman Robotics Division, Miamisburg, Ohio. Motoman Robotics is creating a “network of system integrators,” says Andy Glaser, the company’s vice president of sales. Mid-West makes backgauge fingers that go into the press brake to which the Motoman robot talks. “Operators get the part close to the press brake and the robot controls itself and positions itself,” Guernsey says. “Just by changing the press brake program, it’ll change the robot program automatically.”
Also looking to expand its offerings, Richmond, Ind.-based J.M. Hutton and Co. Inc. wanted to reduce customers’ time-to-market with a new product that significantly eliminated the lead time needed to develop and build trim tooling, says Tom Robeson, tool room supervisor, J.M. Hutton Stamping Division. The company purchased the Motoman HP50-20 with a 1 kW IPG Photonics laser to meet the multifaceted needs of its shop.
Founded in 1845 as a casket manufacturer, the company has broadened its customer base to include aerospace, automotive, rail, food service and medical industries, among others. Building on its experience in stamping, deep draw, 2-D laser cutting and powder coating, the independently owned company wanted to reduce customers’ up-front expenses by eliminating expensive trim tool costs, Robeson says. “We can offer an economic alternative to part design revisions that would require extensive rework or replacement of existing trim tooling,” he says.
J.M. Hutton worked with Motoman Robotics to create a custom system. “The only thing that was standard was the robot itself,” says Ralph Garvey, regional sales manager at Motoman Robotics. “Motoman Robotics helped customize the equipment J.M. Hutton needed.”
Garvey says Motoman initially recommended two different lasers to J.M. Hutton for consideration. Through its network of OEMs, power supply and laser companies, Motoman Robotics partners with companies in each market to couple with its robotic technology, offering customers customized solutions.
Along with rapid prototyping, J.M. Hutton found the laser it selected for use in the robotic system offered advantages including a small heat-affected zone because of the low wattage required compared to a CO2 laser. It requires no lasing gas or mirrors as in a CO2 laser. It also provided ease of cross-training individuals with current robot skills as well as “excellent support from the Motoman team,” Robeson adds. Lasing gases are the consumable (overhead) gases used when cutting with a CO2 laser, which are not needed with Motoman Robotics’ solution, reducing overhead costs, he notes.
After purchasing the ES165 robot model in 2007, Mid-West procured the ability to “go after the big projects,” Guernsey says. “We have the ability to produce the parts we couldn’t do before because in the past, guys didn’t want to do the heavy work. In the past, we were at the mercy of our men. Now, the robots take on the heavy tasks.” Guernsey says workers didn’t like lifting heavy parts constantly each day. “So when Motoman came along, we were able to not worry about our guys,” he says.
Guernsey’s shop is gaining additional large jobs because heavy-lifting concerns are no longer a hinderance to daily operations. “The bigger and heavier things we can do, the more our customers like it because there’s less welding they have to do on their end, and other shops can’t compete with that,” he says. “Sometimes, if you have a part that weighs 200 lbs. and you’re doing a small flange on the end, the chances of it coming out nearly flawless with a man doing the cutting are slim,” he says. “But the robot can handle more difficult complexities of the part.”
Robotic technology also allowed Mid-West more leeway when business slows. “What was neat for us was when the economy slowed down, we had a robot in place and we were able to just turn work over to the manual presses—we didn’t have to lay off our skilled labor source,” Guernsey says. “Then when the economy picked back up, we were able to use the robots.” Keeping skilled labor on the payroll was key because “once you lose the skilled labor force, it’s hard to get it again. We almost use it as a buffer-type system.”
Since acquiring the Motoman machine, J.M. Hutton has received additional orders from customers. “The tight economy has actually helped in this case by lowering the customers’ capital investment needed to bring a product to market. Jobs that would normally be shelved or delayed are brought into production,” Robeson says. “We have seen an increase in business that can be attributed to our addition of value-added processes like this [Motoman robotic technology].”
Motoman Robotics’ work cell has been “a great complement to our core business of custom stampings and deep-draw work,” Robeson continues. “We are able to partner with our customers to help them take a more lean, cutting-edge approach to today’s market.”
J.M. Hutton was trimming parts for its customers using a plasma cutter. The company was “not getting the quality of work our customers needed,” Robeson says. “The solid state laser combined with the Motoman HP50-20 robot greatly increased our cut quality, accuracy and speed. The work environment is greatly improved, with the smoke and sparks that accompanied the plasma method nearly non-existent.” The more than 10-ft.-reach of the robot easily allows workers to trim large panels to a high degree of accuracy and repeatability, he says.
Research behind the technology
With product development in the United States and Japan, Motoman’s products in the Americas are nearly 100 percent driven by market demand. “Most products we release are a direct result of solving a need that currently available solutions could not resolve in the traditional ways of doing things,” says Glaser. “The tool then becomes a piece of technology we try and share as well as continue to improve.”
In addition to its collaborative efforts with industry system integrators, Glaser says its products are often the result of the discovery of new ways of solving customers’ problems. In 2010, Bloomberg Businessweek ranked Yaskawa as the world’s largest producer of industrial robotics.
While Motoman Robotics offers robotic joining and cutting solutions, the company also provides an array of material-handling and material-removal capabilities through Motoman Robotics and its network of partners. The company collaborates with partners to find ways for manufacturers to increase productivity and decrease costs. “Between our own internal product R&D group as well as the technologies our partners have developed, there are several unique technologies offered to the fabrication market that otherwise would not be available,” Glaser says. FFJ
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