ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Plastics manufacturers are increasingly turning to collaborative robots to tend injection-molding machines, according to Universal Robots A/S. The company today launched its Injection Molding Machine Interface, which it said makes the communication between its e-Series cobots and injection molding machines fast and easy.
“Injection molding machines have many inputs and outputs to manage the complexities of the molding process,” stated Joe Campbell, senior manager of applications development at Universal Robots. “Standardized interfaces allow for ease of integration and exchangeability.”
Challenges for plastics manufacturers include labor shortages, bottlenecks in increasing production capacity, and the need to improve efficiency, said Campbell during a press briefing.
The global market for collaborative robots in the plastics and polymers industry is expected to grow exponentially over the next five years, from $250 million in 2020 to $1.5 billion in 2025. According to BIS Research, 15% of all cobot applications in 2020 will be within injection molding, automating tasks such as placing inserts into molds and moving parts through post-mold processes.
These tasks require high repeatability, complex motions, and demanding angles, making them perfectly suited for Universal Robots’ six-axis robots, said the Odense, Denmark-based company.
Space is often limited on workshop floors. The ability of cobots to work alongside human operators (subject to a risk assessment) and to be installed on top of or next to an injection-molding machine without changing the layout can save valuable space, Campbell said.
IMMI designed for plug and play
“With the IMMI, we give the manufacturer the ability to set up, program, and control the entire application cycle through the UR cobot’s teach pendant,” Campbell said. “Combine this with the positioning flexibility and the additional degrees of freedom found in UR cobots compared to traditional cartesian robots, and you have a very powerful solution.”
“The previous approach would be a hardwired connection with discrete I/O and specific software to map I/O points to a program on the robot side,” he said. “We took away the discrete wiring point [and replaced it] with a standard connector and plugs. We’ve also replaced custom application development with a standard interface that is easily set up.”
Universal Robots said the IMMI is installed in its cobots’ control box in less than 10 minutes. The injection-molding interface integrates with the robot system, includes safety functionality, and uses the control-box expansion port for easy mounting and cable management.
“We’ve tried to strip out the engineering time, cost, and risk associated with the normal approach to building interfaces with injection-molding machines,” said Campbell.
Injection Molding Machine Interface certifications and UR+
IMMI is certified for injection-molding machines with EUROMAP 67 and SPI AN-146 communication interfaces. Universal Robots provides an IMMI template for programming with its Polyscope operating system.
The Injection Molding Machine Interface is now available through Universal Robots’ rapidly expanding UR+ platform of products that certified to work seamlessly with UR cobots. It is intended to work with standard interfaces for third-party products, said Campbell.
Pandemic leads to faster deployments
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated cobot demand in certain sectors, responded Campbell to a question at the press briefing.
“Based on feedback we’re getting from the market today, we’re seeing two significant trends,” he said. “First is that anybody making any kind of medical PPE — whether face shields, gowns, or testing equipment — is desperately trying to ramp up production. This plays to UR’s sweet spot, because we can ramp up at the best pace in the business.”
“Companies are purchasing UR robots and deploying them into their operations from 10 days to two weeks. That’s very gratifying,” said Campbell. “We offer a 10-day lead time and a one-year warranty.”
“The second trend is that it’s clear social distancing isn’t going away anytime soon…. It’s going to be two to three months before any relaxing occurs,” he added. “We’re a great tool to facilitate social distancing in manufacturing — robots can work side by side with skilled human operators. Many companies are pushing to automate, and cobots can help maintain that distance between workers.”