RCM Industries Inc. faced competition from suppliers in Mexico for a large project, so it had to keep costs down and productivity up. The Chicago-area die-casting manufacturer ultimately used e-Series collaborative robot arms from Universal Robots A/S for repetitive tasks requiring precision, enabling it to successfully compete and retain higher-value jobs for U.S. workers.
A large customer of RCM Industries considered offshoring production to save money, requiring the company to search for ways to maintain value and control costs.
In addition, it would be difficult for automation to attain the high level of precision needed to fit and self-align parts into the CNC (computer numerical control) machine chucks.
Operators load parts on a table, and the robots move them from station to station. The UR10e cobots pick up raw parts, put them into a pre-fixture for alignment, and place them on first chuck and then the second chuck. They drop the completed parts onto a conveyor belt to return to the operator.
The cobot’s integrated force-torque sensing allows it to search for the correct position on the chucks and self-align. The sensing also allows the robot to find and reject parts that are out of shape that don’t load correctly.
RCM Industries is also using a UR10 to pick up metal rings from a lathe tended by a cartesian robot. The UR10 puts the parts in a tank to wash off any lubricants, circulates them in front of a blower to dry, and then puts the finished products on drums.
To grip parts for the machine-tending application, RCM Industries chose a PHD three-jaw Pneu-Connect gripper from the online UR+ showroom. The gripper is UR+ certified, which means it is plug-and-play ready for integration.
“It has all the air valves already built in, all the wiring completed, and any coding necessary to integrate with the robot already done,” said Rob Marconi, director of engineering and technology at RCM Industries. “We simply plugged a wire into the robot, installed the software directly into the teach pendant, and we were ready to go.”
With no background in robot programming, Marconi was able to download the PolyScope simulation software from Universal Robots and create the entire program structure before the cobot arm even arrived. At that point, he simply downloaded the program to the robot and taught it the waypoints on-site using the UR’s teach pendant.
“With a robot, it’s consistently doing the same motion every time at exactly the same time, so we immediately saw about a 15% increase in throughput as soon as we deployed them,” he stated.
Results at RCM Industries
“One of the main tangible benefits that we got right away was a consistency of the throughput from those cells,” Marconi said. “When operators were manually loading machines, they were often juggling multiple tasks such as checking parts and bringing parts in and out of the cell. That meant that even though they could load the machines fairly quickly, they could also be inconsistent.”
In addition, because of the collaborative nature of the UR cobots, operators can freely enter the work cell to adjust the CNC machine or perform other tasks. This ability to deploy without safety fencing after performing an initial risk assessment is a key advantage of cobots over traditional robots, said Odense, Denmark-based Universal Robots.
“If the cobot does not load successfully, it’ll issue an error to the operator, in which case, the operator can go into the cell, remove the part, and start up the cycle again without having to open up any safety caging and lock and tag-out the cell,” explained Marconi.
Although automation reduced the staffing requirements for certain tasks, RCM Industries was able to retain workers by being more competitive.
“We were able to gain revenue and gain capacity, so those employees could be deployed to other departments and other services within the organization,” said Mike Higgins, sales and marketing director at RCM. “When it comes to staffing in an urban area such as we are, it’s very tough. All of us manufacturers are fighting for skilled employees. We need to look at all times where we can automate, especially in repetitive tasks.”
Case Study Breakdown
|Company: RCM Industries Inc.|
|Location: Franklin Park, Ill.|
|Industry: Die-cast manufacturing|
|Challenge: Increasing productivity for global competitiveness, improving worker satisfaction|
|Partners: Universal Robots, FPE Automation|
|Robots: Two UR10e collaborative robot arms|
|Tasks: Dual-spindle CNC machine tending, picking and placing parts in washing/drying cycle|
|Value drivers: Fast implementation, easy deployment with offline programming, high precision|
|Results: 15% increase in throughput, redeployment of workers to higher-value tasks|
|Return on investment: Less than a year|
Marconi said he expects to see continued benefits from the cobots, which paid for themselves in less than a year.
“We have many future applications planned, but I think one of the main benefits of these robots is they’re so easily able to be redeployed,” he explained. “As our line expands and as we’re looking to improve on throughput, we already have plans to take those robots, move them to different areas, and get better throughput from those cells without having to re-do any kind of caging or any kind of wiring.”
This is different than traditional industrial robots, which are rarely redeployed because of the costs and downtime related to moving bulky safety caging.
“The e-Series robots are what we are leading with our customers as the cobot of choice,” said Cameron Friend, an automation specialist at FPE Automation, which helped RCM select the UR cobots. He cited advantages including intuitive programming, fast joint replacements, and the increased repeatability of 30 microns for the UR3e and UR5e and 50 microns for the UR10e.
“Those are all very important factors that are helping us break into new applications,” he said. “Besides machine tending these are tasks such as deburring, dispensing, packing and palletizing.”