Stacking trays, picking parts off conveyors, and tending machines are just some of the many tedious tasks AIM Processing now has the collaborative robots from Universal Robots (UR) handling. Facing labor shortages, the Colorado injection molder wanted a versatile automation solution that could quickly be moved between workstations to address a multitude of tasks in a high mix/low volume setting. The answer was a mobile platform with a UR cobot equipped with Flexx Reference, a feature that enables the cobot to be repurposed in a matter of minutes, delivering a fourfold increase in productivity with a payback of fewer than 15 weeks.
Walking along the aisles of injection molding machines, owner Jon Gelston points out the many different small parts his company produces. “We have a widely-diversified business,” he explains. “We’re producing over 1300 different parts for more than 100 different customers in a variety of industries. Every day is new here with very few production runs set up for a long time.”
The complexity of AIM Processing’s production was further compounded by an extremely scarce labor market. “That really sparked us to look into automation, to find ways to increase our output and control our costs,” says Gelston, who started searching for a versatile and modular automation solution. His team had come across Universal Robots at a tradeshow a few years earlier. “It struck us as something that had potential to work in our environment,” says the AIM Processing owner, who went ahead and purchased a UR5e cobot.
What the walk-through revealed
“Once we got it up and running, it was a beautiful thing and we wanted to move the robot around between applications,” says Gelston. “The challenge, however, was next time we would go set it up and all the time we would need to spend to reteach the waypoints the robot moves through in free space,” he explains, emphasizing how accuracy to 0.5mm was necessary at some points. “It is one thing to get something working once, but without a dedicated production line and the UR5e locked into an exact position, how would we set this up again?”
One of the applications, for example, has the UR5e picking and placing trays in front of a cartesian robot that palletizes small parts into compartments on the tray. The company couldn’t simply launch a stored program used previously for the same application, since the position of the robot could still be slightly off – causing the whole application to be out of sync.
The company called up Seth Leinbach, a sales engineer with a local UR cobot distributor, In-Position Technologies, who did a factory walk-through with Gelston. “We looked at several applications and none were high enough volume to justify a dedicated robot cell,” says Leinbach. “Jon also had plenty of questions on how to repurpose a robot and how to match coordinate systems of the UR to the injection molding machine, and right away I thought it was a perfect fit for a UR+ solution by Flexxbotics called the Flexx Reference.”
Flexx Reference is a software/hardware solution featuring a locking mechanism with a relative offset that eliminates the need to update the UR cobot’s waypoints and moves every time the cobot or the work cell shifts. Flexx Reference enabled AIM Processing to redeploy the UR5e while still achieving the desired repeatability. “We tore down a running configuration, moved it, and set it up again,” explains Gelston.
“We moved the cobot just an inch, locked it and updated the Flexx Reference. It worked; accurate to 0.5mm and it took just 2 minutes. Everything just fell into place,” says the AIM Processing owner, who besides the Flexxbotics solution also received recommendations from In-Position Technologies on grippers and vision cameras from Robotiq.
Plug-and-play with UR cobots
All these components are certified through the UR+ program to be plug-and-play with the UR cobots. “The installation of the UR+ components was incredibly easy,” explains Gelston. “The software, called a URCap, shows up on a flash drive that you plug directly into the cobot’s teach pendant, removing all of the technical details of making the cobot arm talk to the peripherals.” The URCaps now allow AIM Processing to program both Flexx Reference, and Robotiq’s vision camera and gripper directly through the cobot’s own teach pendant interface.
Fourfold productivity increase
Since the company’s first cobot deployment, AIM Processing has launched more than a dozen specific applications, having the UR5e tend injection molding machines, stack trays, and pick parts off conveyors. “From our very first application, the cobot far surpassed our expectations in terms of productivity increase,” says Gelston, whose first goal was to automate the picking and placing of trays for the palletizing cartesian robot. Previously, this was an activity that occurred every 90 seconds with a person sitting and waiting to move the trays for a couple of seconds.
“The benefit of automating this task was not just the obvious labor avoidance. We can now run the machine with a much higher capacity and throughput in a 24/7 operation as opposed to just 40 hours a week. That basically gave us a fourfold increase in our output productivity,” he says, adding that another benefit is consistency: “In terms of our part output, the cycle times are exactly the same, to the second, which leads to a consistent product.”
ROI within 15 weeks
Jon Gelston is often asked how much he paid for the UR5e cobot – and more importantly, how quickly it will pay itself back. “My response is always that it’s not going to pay itself back if you don’t use it,” he says, stressing how the modular deployment really helped drive home the ROI:
“Part of the uncertainty with running a variety of different parts for varying durations makes it difficult in terms of trying to calculate payback; but what I can tell you is that on our very first application, we found that after we ran it the fifth time, we had paid for the robot itself, which meant an ROI inside of 15 weeks.”
Free training through UR Academy
The AIM Processing owner had a basic understanding of logic flow and programming prior to working with Universal Robots, “but very little direct experience with robot programming” as he puts it, emphasizing the value of resources he found through the free online portion of the UR Academy.
“There were self-training modules in both video and read-along formats that were very helpful for us to find and learn from in terms of applications and improvements in procedures that would benefit a variety of our applications,” he says admitting that; “Our first application was probably, by our standards now, not terribly complicated; but at the time, it did feel like it was. There were a lot of different moving parts, some of which were programming, some of which were hardware- and machinist-related, and some of which were simply process-related,” explains Gelston adding how a variety of departments had to come together to make it work.
“By utilizing the resources that we found in the UR training database and support site, as well as the Universal Robots’ community of value-added resellers and add-on components, it really enabled that project to come to a great success,” concludes the AIM Processing owner who just deployed a second UR5e to roam the factory floor wherever automation is needed.
The “somebody nudged the robot” scenario
The success factors of the cobot deployment are not simply the concrete savings on labor. Many other more subtle benefits have emerged. “One of the real-world issues that you face is not only the setup of the robot and the redeployment, but the ‘somebody nudged the robot’ scenario,” says Gelston, explaining how workers would sometimes bump into the robot by mistake. “If it’s very slightly out of position, it messes everything up. Using the Flexx Reference allows us in just a couple of minutes to reteach that one position that may be causing all other positions to be out of place,” says the AIM Processing owner, comparing it to the several hours this repositioning could otherwise take. “Hours that our engineers can now spend on new development instead of being the ‘set-up person’. Any skill level can essentially execute a redeployment now,” he says.
First off-the-shelf solution for redeployment
This was the exact goal when Flexxbotics set out to develop Flexx Reference, explains Flexxbotics CEO Tyler Bouchard. “If you never change your application or don’t move your cobot around, you most likely won’t need this,” he readily admits. “But we’re seeing an emerging trend of UR cobots not dedicated to one task only. The cobots lend themselves so well to many types of applications, so we came up with the Flexx Reference as a productivity tool to achieve quick redeployment, enabling the operators to simply move the cobots to where they are needed that day.”
Seth Leinbach with In-Position Technologies recalls how other manufacturers he’s worked with in the past resorted to addressing the redeployment headache by pinning the cobot to the floor or to machines. “Or, they’ve done it programmatically by updating feature coordinates, or even vision systems by taking a picture of a landmark and adapting coordinates that way. All very cumbersome, time-consuming DIY approaches,” he says. “There wasn’t really an off-the-shelf product that was easy to use without having to customize or design an intricate pinning system or a mating reference. Flexx Reference is basically the first solution I’ve come across that is plug-and-play out of the box.”
Avoiding the robot graveyard with future-proof versatility
Leinbach sees the cobot redeployment approach as a very significant trend in industrial automation. “Industrial robots of the past were always dedicated to high-volume parts,” he says. “There are several instances where I’m at a customer site and see a graveyard of industrial robots because they’re dedicated hardware, only purposed for a production run of two to three years. Using a Universal Robot represents some of the first times you can easily repurpose a robot due to the built-in safety system that eliminates the need for safety caging around the cobot in most cases,” he says, adding that In-Position Technologies has sold UR cobots to manufacturers using them for machine tending, woodworking machines, spindling, and CNC machines. “All with positive reviews,” he says. “There are so many production setups out there where the robot purchase isn’t justified running just one application. This changes all that.”