Founded in 1958, Allied Moulded is a full-service molding operation manufacturing non-metallic electrical boxes and enclosures for residential, commercial and industrial markets. Facing significant challenges due to labor shortages, the Ohio-based company chose Universal Robots’ new ActiNav system to automate an important bin-picking application. The deployment enabled Allied Moulded to reduce overtime expenses, move existing workers to more ergonomic tasks and improve consistency in the production process.
Like many firms throughout Ohio’s manufacturing sector, Allied has faced challenges filling open positions due to difficult labor market conditions. At the same time, the company wanted to enhance the safety of its current staff by freeing them from repetitive, unergonomic bin-picking tasks. Quality improvement was also a motivating factor in the decision to explore automation
“When looking for automation you look for repetitiveness. You have better control over your quality if you have more consistency with loading and unloading machines,” explained Tom Carlisle, manufacturing support department manager, Allied Moulded. “As far as keeping and retaining your employees, you want to remove some of the repetitiveness from their positions.”
Using manual labor on bin-picking applications produces inconsistent results, added manufacturing engineer technician, Nate Gilbert. “One of the biggest challenges with manual labor is they get tired and towards the end of the day, production would go down; whereas with a robot, you can always count on a consistent output.”
The COVID-19 pandemic added another layer of concern regarding the company’s manual labor force. “We could risk that dedicated staff at any moment would not be here for reasons beyond their control,” said Carlisle. “So we needed a way to keep those processes running.”
Additionally, Allied Moulded required a bin-picking solution with a small footprint, so that it could easily be incorporated into its existing facility.
Allied Moulded has been tracking the development of bin-picking automation from its infancy, and has found significant limitations with traditional approaches, said Carlisle: “Most of your bin-picking systems were developed for forging operations, but they didn’t have the speed that we were looking for.”
When Allied first researched bin-picking automation, the technology “just wasn’t where we needed it to be,” said Gilbert: “The guarding was too intrusive, and that was going to make it difficult when we needed to have an operator in that area. Floor space here at Allied is pretty limited already, and the thought of having to put up more guarding to accommodate a robot was one of the things that held us back initially; but with collaborative robots being safe around employees, we felt that was a great way to go.”
Allied Moulded’s interest in the potential of collaborative robots (cobots) increased following a trip to a nearby factory that had already successfully deployed cobots from Universal Robots (UR). A follow-up encounter with UR at a trade show eventually led to the deployment of UR’s ActiNav autonomous bin-picking kit – a flexible, automated bin-picking solution that synchronously handles vision processing, collision-free motion planning, and autonomous real-time robot control.
“ActiNav was the first system we were confident we could get in the space available without creating a bunch of extra obstacles. Just the simplicity of it picking parts out of the bin and onto the conveyor is what we were really looking for, and ActiNav seemed to meet that demand,” said Gilbert, noting that ActiNav constitutes a major improvement to the vibratory feeders that are often used for part positioning. “We have vibratory bowl feeders on lots of our machines; but they are loud, and they are expensive, so it just wasn’t justified to put that type of system on this machine. But ActiNav is much lower cost, and much quieter.”
While Allied Moulded had experience with traditional automation, deploying a cobot was “a brand new experience,” said maintenance group lead, Nathan Wells: “It was really exciting to see something that didn’t need to be caged in, and that I could walk around while it was doing its job. When it came to programming, this was probably one of the easiest robots that I’ve ever had to program. You don’t really have to have any specific numbers to put in, or anything like that; you just have to move it into place, push a few buttons and there you go, there’s the program.”
Feeding ActiNav the data it needs to take care of part recognition is an equally painless process, said Wells: “We used a CAD file of the product, loaded it into the ActiNav and it took that and used it to register parts out of the bin. It was very easy to load in. You just put it on a USB and plug it into the controller.” Meanwhile, teaching the bin was also very straightforward: “We just touch the robot to each part of the bin. You do a few spots of that, and ActiNav learns the bin itself. I would say after the first day of setup, it took maybe a shift to learn how to actually do the programming, and after that, we were good on our own.”
The process begins with stock handlers unloading a full crate of parts into a dumpster. Once activated, the dumpster dumps its parts into the ActiNav bin. ActiNav picks up parts –in this case, extruded fiberglass electric junction box housings – and places them in proper orientation onto a narrow, railed conveyor. Correct placement is crucial, explained Carlisle: “The part has to be placed in a particular order on the machine because of the secondary operations that the machine performs. If the part is placed incorrectly on the conveyor, you’d have to reject that, so you’ve lost all the labor and materials of that part.”
The conveyor brings the parts to a small, caged work cell that has a rotary table with multiple stations. At each station, there is a fabrication element that is applied to the cup and eventually there is an out-conveyor that dumps finished parts into a large bin. Along the way, Carlisle notes, ActiNav has to make some decisions autonomously: which part to pick, how to place it in the correct orientation and how to identify incorrect parts, place them aside and continue with its main task.
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Once the bin is kept full, ActiNav can go all day without operator intervention, said Gilbert. “I’ve been pretty impressed with the ability of the robot to pick our parts out of the bin, no matter the orientation, and place them on the machine correctly. A task like that is usually pretty hard for a robot to be set up to do. We’re pretty confident in an operator doing it; but to have the robot do it and not have to use direct labor in that situation has been a big benefit.”
Traditional automation requires mats, fences and enclosures to protect workers from potential injury, but this can lead to enclosures “the size of an office” being required to automate some tasks, noted Carlisle, whereas cobots are designed to operate in close proximity to people:
“This lets you have flexibility of where you’re going to place the robot [and] lets you interact with it: if there’s difficulty and you need to go and clear an error, there’s not a large procedure that you have to go through to get access. And it makes it more acceptable to individuals on the floor because it doesn’t seem inaccessible to them; it’s right there in the open.”
ActiNav doesn’t take any lunches, cigarette or bathroom breaks and it always shows up for work, Carlisle noted. “It’s like the tortoise and the hare. ActiNav is consistent. It’s always there, putting the part on. A human operator can be faster, but their consistency can be affected by the need to take breaks. At the end of the day, the total amount of product should be the same, if not better, with ActiNav than a human operator; but without the fatigue and manual dexterity of moving all the time. At the end, the tortoise just keeps putting it out because he’s consistent.”
Deploying ActiNav has allowed operators at Allied Moulded to upskill, becoming trainers and mentors on the system and contributing design ideas for future automation projects. “As we bring in automation to do a lot of the mundane and unsafe tasks, and to be safer, our operators are the biggest asset that we have and they make the best trainers for your next generation of employees,” said Carlisle.
ActiNav’s versatility is inspiring a host of ideas for future applications at Allied Moulded. “Picture yourself on the candy line with Lucille picking the chocolate drops off,” suggested Carlisle, referring to the famous chocolate factory scene in the television sitcom “I Love Lucy.”
“ActiNav could do that for you. And tomorrow it might be candy canes. The next day it might be fruitcakes. That’s the flexibility you’d like to see. And once you see the task performed and you say, ‘Well, it can do this,’ you mind goes, ‘I have a hundred other things that I’d like to try.’”
Allied Moulded is “well on its way” to being able to move ActiNav to any machine and set it up for any part style, said Gilbert. “We’re planning to implement ActiNav anywhere we can find a benefit for it. If we had a failed vibratory bowl, for example, we would just have ActiNav pick the part out of the bin and place it on the line.”
The company plans to use ActiNav on multiple machines in its facility. “Table loading would definitely be something that I could see happening,” said Well. “This would be loading parts from a bin directly onto a round table that will rotate around to stations, instead of loading it onto a conveyor.”