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September 1, 2003

22 Min Read
Automation, parts handling


Automated Assemblies? new Raptor line of robots can be scaled from a simple parts removal device to a multifunction workcell system. Raptor controls are equally scalable and can control the complete workcell with no additional controller.

Robots that call your mobile phone to give you a live process update; robotic controls that flex from simple extraction to managing complex workcells; three-axis, Scara, and articulated robots that connect to your network?automation galore was the unwritten theme at NPE 2003. Everywhere you turned were robots: on machines, off machines, in molding cells, in packaging and stacking configurations, inspecting, verifying, finishing . . . you name it.

This should not come as a surprise. Automation was in serious growth mode at NPE 2000, and even a slow economy could not stop it. There is a brewing consensus among suppliers and molders that molding-based production in the U.S. is going increasingly high tech, where automation is a given. The more demanding the job is, the more important the automation becomes for both productivity and quality assurance.

There is also the desire of molders to add value to the final product, and automation is the key that turns a molding machine into a multitask production cell. Steve Braig, president of Automated Assemblies, added a few more reasons for automation?s emergence. Obviously, there is labor savings, but it is usually not the driving motive. Quality, says Braig, is a big factor. Automation means process stabilization, and in turn that gives a big boost to productivity. He also brought up lean thinking. Shooting a part, boxing it, carting it across the plant, working on it, moving it again, and possibly repeating all this several times is just about the polar opposite of lean. Adding value at the molding machine is, by contrast, very close to the bone.

  • Controls?Leading the Charge

    Robots themselves are becoming faster, more flexible, and for a given job, often less costly. Hot new technology such as force sensing and vision systems can now be done by the robotic control rather than the machine control. Control technology, say the suppliers, is the bridge to get you into automation by providing far simpler and faster access to the power in the robots. Therefore, controls are ever faster, smarter, more flexible, and, though it might sound contradictory, easier to use. Virtually every automation supplier we spoke with used the words ?more powerful? and ?much easier to use? and usually in the same sentence.


    With Fanuc?s RoboGuide/SimPro software, including its Virtual Robot Controller, a complete robotic application can be developed and tested offline. Developers can import CAD parts models and simulate the entire robotic process in 3-D space, including highly accurate cycle time information.

    Having looked at and handled many of the controls, we agree with both statements. Computer technology explains the contradiction. Though the computer and its communication system have become a lot more powerful, the operator interface has become more graphic, using icons rather than code for programming. Touch screens and wizards guide you through setup, stopping you if you make a mistake. It is close to being a pushbutton process. Some controls include voice prompts, and those same voices even can call your mobile phone to tell you a process is moving out of tolerance. Welcome to the future, once again.

    In the August issue of IMM we took a fast look at some of the automation highlights; here are some more.

  • Flexible, as in Economical

    Speaking with IMM during NPE, Automated Assemblies? Braig made a strong case for flexibility in automation systems. He says putting in automation that fits one product is OK, if the life cycle runs long enough. The catch? Product life cycles are shrinking daily?ditto production batch sizes. If automation is easily and cheaply adapted to various products, there is less to depreciate on each project. Braig thinks between 55 and 80 percent of automation costs should be redeployable.

    Automated Assemblies used NPE 2003 to launch its new Raptor line of robots that are designed for easy expandability from simple part removal to complete workcells. Likewise, the new open-architecture Raptor PC-based controls are scalable enough to eliminate a separate workcell control. Ethernet connectivity supports factory integration, remote troubleshooting, and offline Windows-based programming. An integrated vision inspection system that looks at parts or mold cavities can be set up using the Raptor?s simple graphical control interface. The vision system also connects via Ethernet to the Internet so that machines can be managed at multiple locations anywhere in the world.


    Here you can see the inner workings of the retrofit-suitable PLC Plus rectilinear robot control from Logic One, which is said to save molders 50 percent of the cost of a new robot.

    Performance-wise, Raptor combines a SynqNet digital motion-control interface, which is about six times faster than standard Firewire, and CANopen I/O control, which eliminates PLC cards and much wiring, to achieve fast signal processing within the robot or workcell. At NPE, Automated put a pin in a stack of weights to demonstrate Raptor?s InteliMotion speed control. The system sensed the difference in weight and dynamically compensated to let the robot continue moving at maximum speed.

  • Bring the Fault to the User

    CBW Automation continues to follow its complete solutions strategy, and at NPE it showed some very fast components to make the solutions happen. We saw a new two-level robot that can run a variety of lids and containers, support 3-second cycle times, and run a lid orienter that can process 550 lids/min into counted stacks with 100 percent orientation. For molding machines of 300 tons or less, CBW?s side-entry robot also supports 3-second cycles. Impressive technology, to be sure, and yet it seemed that CBW was even more excited about its new Lumera Control System.

    CBW?s Mark Bamberger says the primary goal was user friendliness, so the screens are familiar Windows 2000 views. CBW then used a variety of leading-edge computer industry standards to create the system, including HMI (human machine interface) software from National Instruments that provides on-screen photographic images of the item being set up or worked on.

    The Lumera screen shows a photograph of a fault area and identifies the problem. When the operator acknowledges the fault, troubleshooting remedies appear on screen. As problems are resolved, that information can be incorporated into the system database for later use. For deeper reference, all of the system?s manuals are available online and searchable, including electrical and mechanical drawings and parts lists. Since the system can be networked, diagnostics can also come directly from CBW or any other location with an Internet connection.

    ?But all I need is a sprue picker?

    It?s not ?just? a sprue picker anymore. Virtually every automation supplier IMM visited at NPE 2003 had new sprue pickers to show off. Most of the new ones are servodriven. That means more speed and precision, and you can add in easy setup and a lower price than nonservo pickers of a few years ago. The suppliers say a sprue picker is how most molders get started with robotics, so step right up.

    PlasticsAssistant, new robot control system software from Stäubli, is designed specifically for plastics applications and the RXplastics line of robots. The software is available as a quick-to-learn alternative to RXplastics? existing high-level graphics-based system?alleviating the perceived difficulty of programming a six-axis robot. The control system software incorporates plastics industry terminology so that the system is intuitive for mold setters and operators.

    The PLC Plus rectilinear robot control is Logic One?s first gantry control for use with injection molding machines. Pneumatic and electric robots can be retrofitted with induction motors for higher speeds and positioning repeatability. The PLC Plus control is said to yield speeds up to 3 m/sec, ±1 mm positioning, and 20- to 25-lb payloads. An Allen-Bradley SLC 5/03 processor and HSRV servo modules control three electric axes and two pneumatic tool axes. Retrofit pricing for PLC Plus starts at $15,000; typical robots are priced in the $20,000 to $30,000 range.


    Motoman?s ProcessWorld II-100 demonstration showed how a working cell could be built from a set of components prematched to the application.

    Motoman?s new Scara robot showed the NPE crowd how it could work with an integrated vision system to detect specific parts in a moving conveyor belt for selection and transfer.

  • Articulation Multiplying

    Articulated robots have already become the norm in many molding shops, and that seemed true around McCormick Place, too. In our August issue (p. 20) we highlighted the large ABB six-axis robot that served as the part remover, manipulator, and placer in a Battenfeld workcell making automotive glazing panels. Smaller articulated robots were even more in evidence, hard at work in assembly and insert placement roles. Increased acceptance has led manufacturers to design new models specifically for plastics applications. Reach and payload capacity are appropriate for molded parts, and the robots can move easily into molds and perform post-mold value-added work.

    At NPE 2003, Fanuc Robotics introduced the M-16iB/20T, the newest addition to its Toploader line of articulated six-axis gantry-mounted robots. During the show, the new model, which can handle a payload up to 20 kg (44 lb), was busy demonstrating how it extracts a part from its overhead position and takes it through a variety of post-mold processes scattered around the molding machine. With this model added, the Toploader Series now has a reach of 1.3 to 2.2m and a payload range of 6 to 200 kg (13 to 440 lb). According to Fanuc representatives, it is particularly popular where ceiling height is restricted, feeding processes like degating, deflashing, labeling, quality assurance, packaging, and palletizing. The robot can be mounted under or on the side of the rail to allow work on both sides of the rail or maximum stroke and vertical reach?and two robots can share a rail.

    Fanuc?s M16iB/20T Toploader uses the new R-J3iB controller, the company?s highest-performance unit. Fanuc was using the new robot and controller to demonstrate its new visLOCi vision software by accurately picking randomly placed parts off a table. The software, which contains both 2-D and 3-D guidance tools, integrates a simplified graphical interface with the control. Basically, you tell it, ?The part looks like this; go get it.? And it does, every time, even if you put the part in a pile of other things.

  • Scara Robots for Finishing

    Motoman came to NPE with no less than three new articulated robots, each purpose-designed. The ultrarugged DX1350 is made for material removal like deburring, sanding, and part finishing, and has a stiffness that supports the working tools. To deal with a finishing environment, it has high water and particle resistance, and the wrist, rated at IP67, allows no dust to enter and protects against temporary water immersion. The PS-Series is optimized for automotive painting and industrial applications. The UP-Series has high-speed and high-performance models that have been made compact to reduce floor space or to be placed very close to the work.

    Motoman also offers a series of integrated modular solutions matched to specific production needs. New at NPE was ProcessWorld II-100, a group of specific components that can be configured easily and economically to create a solution for processes such as deburring, dispensing, foam pouring, grinding, inspection, surface finishing, sealing, and the like. PackWorld does much the same for packaging applications, and there are also LaserWorld, PalletWorld, and others.

  • Tight Workspace? No Problem

    Suppliers have risen to the challenge of restricted workspaces with a variety of designs for low overheads, closeness to other machines, and large molded parts.

    IML cups?fast and clean

    Hekuma?s new inmold labeling (IML) system for conical cups was turning out four labeled cups every 3.6 seconds at NPE from a Fostag mold. The Heli-U 1700 linear robot went in, set labels, extracted cups, and got out within .9 second. Hekuma, which has a patent pending on the label preforming technology, says the side-entry robot, besides being fast and precise, is designed to run in Class 1000 cleanrooms for medical and food applications.

    Ranger Automation was at NPE with a couple of space-saving robots. The new Ultra-Compact Wide-Body robot is designed for removing large parts, even when the overhead space looks impossible. Generally intended for machines of 1000 tons or larger, the robots also work well with wide-platen structural foam systems. A triple-telescopic arm reduces the space needed by a third compared with traditional large-machine robots. The wide-body frame, which helps create an extremely stable platform, allows parts as wide as the tiebar spacing to be lifted vertically without interference. A servo option is available for the wrist flip if more precision is needed.

    Ranger?s new F-Series robots have a flat-front arm that allows tall parts to be handled with less overall robot height, and are therefore perfect for low-overhead situations. The F in


    Priced to enable automation even when the budget looks too tight for it, Ranger?s Value Series still includes integrated controls and an easy-to-use, fully teachable operator?s pendant.

    F-Series could also stand for flexibility. When used with rack molds or other obstructed designs, the robot can be programmed to wait behind the obstruction until the mold opens. The standard three-axis servocontrol permits either independent or coordinated motion of each arm. Equipped with servocontrolled wrist flip and wrist roll, this model becomes a five-axis unit for presses from 100 to 3000 tons, and can be supplied as a double-gantry unit for material handling and downstream operations.

    Ranger also introduced a new line of double-arm, high-speed robots for stack or three-plate molds that can run in cycles as short as 5 seconds. Five-axis servocontrol is standard and a servo flip can be added to each wrist to make this a seven-axis unit. High-speed models are ready for machines from 200 to 1000 tons, and models are also available for machines from 1000 to 5000 tons. Another Ranger line at NPE, the Value Series, is aimed at big jobs with small budgets. The price starts at less than $30,000 for 50- to 500-ton machines, including an integrated control and fully teachable touch-screen operator?s pendant.

  • ?Hello, This is Your Robot?

    The controls on the new RZ-V Series robots that Sailor USA previewed at NPE 2003 are all about precise and easy communication and control. The graphic interface sits on a 12-inch touch screen for easy visibility and fast action, and it has password protection to make sure the wrong action is not taken. The system has built-in Ethernet capability, so a project manager can dial in from an office or from the road to see how production is going, though no teaching of the robot is allowed remotely for obvious safety reasons. On the floor, the control interacts with the operator during programming to guide him or her through the teaching steps. On-screen icons make the process fast and easy, but if one goes off track, a voice tells you so. Six meters of cabling let the operator use the control in handheld fashion during teaching or monitoring.


    The new high-performance Lumera control system from CBW uses real photo images of the area being set up or diagnosed. In either case, the control provides on-screen guidance integrated with the image.

    Later in 2003 a feature will be added that lets the computer call a telephone, such as the production manager?s mobile phone, so that the voice can communicate various messages and alerts. Do not panic: You can tell it when to do this.

    The new V Series digital a-c servo robots rolled out by Star Automation at NPE shows why you have a lot more to look at these days than how fast the robot moves. The V Series, which can automate molding machines from 40 to 650 tons, is fast. It is also 11 percent quieter than previous models. Linkless cable track helps eliminate dust for cleanroom installations. Arm motion is smoothed out by reading motor feedback. By using a-c servodrivers in the carriage, Star reduced the size of the control box and, combined with a new drive motor location, shortened the traverse beam to save floor space.

    The V Series STEC-640 control offers a variety of energy-saving features, such as automatically keeping the current to unused axes turned off. Programs can be inserted during operation and the control can connect to a PC by RS232 or USB for online monitoring and modification of setup data, as well as offline programming. Star demonstrated an automatic mold position adjustment that allows a robot to be used with machines that do not always open to the same position. An encoder on the machine lets the robot know the actual mold open position so that no parts are missed due to inconsistent opening. Just set the chucking and mold-open positions and the robot then adjusts itself.

    Sterltech Robotics opened a new dimension in its line of automation systems with the introduction of the SR-SB Series traverse robots. Complementing its existing SR-SA Series single-axis robots, the new robots are aimed at applications where price has been the sticking point. They are low cost, but not really low level. Servotechnology ensures three-axis synchronization within ±.1 mm and Sterling says the SR-SB models will meet the specs for most parts removal, stacking, palletizing, and inspection applications.


    End-of-arm tooling is often charged with a multitude of complex tasks and designing the systems can be quite challenging. Answering this challenge, EMI used NPE to introduce a free 3-D EOAT design service as well as an expanded component line.

    SAS Automation?s new fan gate trimmer cuts fan/edge gates more than 2 ft in length with ±.4-mm vestige tolerance. The trimmer uses custom blade assemblies contoured to the part/gate junction. Parts are held securely in place with a custom-designed part nest.

    Robot brains, hands, and other extensions

    To aid the inmold labeling (IML) process, new end-of-arm tooling for robotic insertion from SAS Automation loads electrostatically charged labels into a mold before injection. Label material is loaded on a robotic gripper from an electrostatically charged fixture, and after insertion the label stays in place on the mold surface, eliminating overflashing or floating problems. After part injection is complete, the robot indexes the patent-pending tooling to the opposite side to remove the molded part from the other half of the mold.

    Sterltech was also talking about its new SRRA Series servo robots, and mostly about the all-new control system based on Windows XP and .net technology. Ethernet and phone connections are standard and there can be up to 200 I/O points to communicate with vision systems or other connectable machines. A camera/microphone network connection can be used for assistance from within or outside the plant or for remote maintenance. Portals are provided for each type of user with unique passwords so that they receive the information they need. Help functions and manuals are online. Setup notes unique to each mold are maintained. The teach program is a lead-through type, allowing the user to jog the robot through a sequence and record the position. The SRRA robots feature a flat belt design for reduced noise and an absolute encoder for easier setup. The overhead height of models with two-stage vertical arms has been reduced as well.

  • High Tech for Any Press Size


    The Visual control system of Conair?s newest Generation IV beam robots offers simplified setup options for unskilled operators.

    Seeing growth in beam-mounted automation on small to medium machines, Conair expanded the range of its Generation IV robots to 1000 tons with the new SR4040 model. It offers longer strokes and several vertical arm designs, including a low height option. The new model?s wrist is compact to reduce mold opening space and has two new servo rotations for moving parts in the mold and in post-mold operations. The robot features Conair?s new Visual control, which is now standard on all Conair Sepro robots. Although it can control up to eight axes at once and execute three parallel subroutines, the Visual system is simplified and icon-driven. Conair says most day-to-day setups can be handled by unskilled operators. These operators can create new routines using either a guided step-through routine or Conair-created templates. Skilled operators can use programming tools. With 8 MB of memory, a Visual system can hold up to 650 programs.

  • Options at Every Level

    Wittmann?s new Robofold system opens a new application for three-axis robot technology. The robot changes manifolds that connect material supplies with machines?automatically and with built-in error prevention. Also in the Wittmann stand was a trio of new products illustrating the depth of automation solutions available today. Starting at the high end is the W633-UHSS (Ultra High Speed Servo) robot system made for thin-wall parts and other applications needing very fast removal times. In the midrange, Wittmann presented the W720 hybrid robot for economic handling of pick-and-place and/or simple secondary ops and degating on machines up to 330 tons. For basics, Wittmann?s new W602 high-speed sprue picker has a speedy vertical arm thanks to its newly designed guiding system. As a bonus, the W602 requires no maintenance, including no lubrication of the bushing or guide tube.

    Also on the Wittmann stand was a small robot (W23) removing sprues and popping them into the hopper of an adjacent grinder. The robot was also opening and closing a door over the grinder?s feedthroat to permit entry of the sprues and to prevent the exit of dust and fines from the hopper during grinding.


    Tec Engineering?s Soft-Tec conveyor gently handles PET preforms with an ultrasonic sensor and control package.

    Flexibility increases part-handling capabilities

    Robots have to place molded parts somewhere after their job is done, and NPE showcased a few products that offered new ideas on how to handle these finished parts. For instance, MAC Automation Concepts Inc. developed a system that can easily be changed to meet a variety of part-handling needs. The patent-pending Quick Change Rail Attachment System mounts directly under or beside the press and offers a variety of interchangeable components. Options for the system include reject sorting, box filling, QC sampling, indexing, reversing, and pneumatic positioning packages. Components available in the system include front-to-rear sorters, airveyors to blow or vacuum parts, conveyors, and standard part chutes and droptrays. Each component can be quickly and easily installed or removed, and the system?s design makes upgrading simple.

    MAC also introduced its new air conveying systems at the show. The systems are said to be ideal for areas where space issues prohibit using standard conveyors. Parts collected in a custom hopper are transported through flexible or rigid piping to an area of secondary operation. Using compressed air, the Vacuum Pressure Airveyor creates negative pressure with a line vacuum to pull the parts. The Positive Pressure Airveyor uses high-pressure ambient air to blow the parts and does not require compressed air. Parts can be fed directly under or beside the press to the Airveyor using a conveyor, robot, or separator.

    For part sorting, MAC developed an RJG Ready underpress conveyer with a quick-change package and part diverter. With a signal from an RJG Relay sensor, the system diverts rejects to the rear while good parts slide out a front chute. The diverter prices start at less than $2900.

    The Soft-Tec conveyor from Tec Engineering was developed to gently transfer and load high-volume PET preforms from the injection molding press into two gaylords. Depending on the configuration of the injection molding press, the conveyor can mate directly with the existing under-the-press conveyor or with a Tec-supplied prefeed conveyor.

    An ultrasonic sensor and comprehensive control package are what make the system gentle. Mounted to the discharge end of the conveyor, the ultrasonic sensor registers the distance from the end of the conveyor to the product deposited into the gaylord. This distance is fed into the controls, and the conveyor incrementally elevates to maintain constant distance resulting in a soft landing. Once the first gaylord is full, as determined by a preset number of injection molding press cycles, the conveyor automatically repositions itself to fill a second gaylord.

    Wittmann?s Compact Series lives up to its name. The company reduced the size of the control cabinet such that you cannot find it. All the electronics are in the traverse beam of the robot, accessible via a slide-out drawer. The Series serves molding machines from 50 to 650 tons and handles up to a 50-lb payload. The robots are managed by the standard Wittmann graphical teaching method, and the teach section of the control unit can be detached from the console to prevent program changes by unskilled operators.


    Wittmann presented its W625 high-speed side-entry robot at NPE in response to increased demand for more sophisticated and faster robotics in the American market. The company is aiming at medical and packaging applications, including inmold labeling, that operate in the sub-10-second cycle range. Wittmann will single-source a complete workcell, including downstream functions, and integrate it through its expandable control system.

    The control cabinet of Wittmann?s Compact Series takes no floor space at all. Instead, it resides in a pullout drawer within the traverse beam.

  • The Choice is Yours

    There was far too much automation at NPE 2003 for us to cover it all, even in five days. Bad for us, but great news for you. Your choices are multiplying, prices are ever more competitive, and a lot of well-qualified suppliers have a broad range of solutions for your automation needs. How do you get them working for you?

    Steve Braig of Automated Assemblies says the key is to make automation part of the upfront planning. It is not an add-on after the fact. A job should be looked at in a holistic way from start to finish with automation in mind. Better to assume automation will work and go forward than to assume it will not or is too expensive. Automation can make you competitive in new ways, if you use it. Think total process from pellet to shipment, involve an automation partner at square one, and robotics will be a winning tool for you.

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