Sharing the workload
A contract manufacturer gets a productivity boost by moving higher volume bending work to a cobot
by Kip Hanson, senior editor
[This article was originally published in the March 2022 issue of Fab Shop Magazine Direct. You can view the original here]
Precision Cut Industries Inc. (PCI) of Hanover, Pa., deals with the same problem facing most manufacturing companies today: adding to their skilled labor. And while they’ve looked at robotic automation as a potential solution several times in the past, it wasn’t until a year or so ago that they found a robot that was both priced right and flexible enough to meet their bending needs.
“We have a pair of Trumpf 7036 TruBend press brakes sitting next to each another and were wondering if we could get a robot to operate one of them for the higher volume work, freeing the operator on the other machine to focus on the short-run, more complex jobs,” says Travis Knaub, vice president of engineering and quality at PCI. “The UR10e collaborative robot (cobot) from Universal Robots, together with Mid Atlantic Machinery Automation’s press brake operator package, has proven to be a good choice for that.”
Run the gamut
As its name implies, PCI began as a laser cutting service provider in 1998. In 2004, president and CEO Brian Greenplate purchased the company and began transforming it into a full-service sheet metal fabricator. Today, the contract manufacturer has 160 employees, roughly 100,000 sq. ft. of operating space across multiple facilities and provides the complete gamut of sheet metal fabricating services.
Knaub explains that PCI has a very diverse customer base and serves “around a dozen different market segments.” These include renewable energy, agriculture, construction, communications, defense, vending equipment and more. The company’s production floors are home to a dozen Trumpf CO2 and fiber lasers, nearly that many CNC press brakes (most of which are also Trumpf) and a welding department that would make Niels Miller proud.
PCI also has a well-equipped machine shop; performs welding, assembly and part marking; and offers hardware insertion and other value-added services.
“Many of our parts and subassemblies go into our customers’ products higher up the supply chain, but we also provide a fair number of finished, end use components,” Knaub says. “In addition, there are two buildings dedicated to conveyor manufacturing and curtain wall insulation and assembly.”
A helping hand
For its press brake automation project, PCI worked with Mid Atlantic Machinery Automation LLC, a division of Mid Atlantic Machinery Inc. Josh Mayse, vice president and co-founder, is part of the team that developed what he calls “a modular press brake operator package.” It is designed for shops that don’t need a traditional robot running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, but rather a system that is flexible, easy to use, can be set up quickly and doesn’t require extensive guarding.
“The package includes a UR10e cobot mounted to a heavy-duty cart that has an integrated area scanner and M12 quick-disconnect cord set,” he says. “With that, we’ve developed a proprietary, quick-change gripping system and 3-D-printed arm designed specifically for press brake use. To set it up, you pin the cart to the floor with a pair of drill bushings, plug it into a 110-V outlet and compressed air line, and call up the program. Changeover and programming are both quite fast, and you can take it to a different machine and have it running within 15 to 20 min.”
Knaub offered much of the same figures. He notes that a complex part might take several hours to program and one with a single bend perhaps 45 min., although he anticipates these times will come down as his team gains more experience. It helps that Mid Atlantic has provided multiple two-, three- and four-bend templates as starting points that can be copied and modified to fit the task at hand. For repeat work, however, programming time is zero, and switching between jobs is literally “just a few minutes.”
One example of this is an internal bracket for an elevator system the company produces on a regular basis. The part has six bends, and PCI runs several hundred each week. This is the type of work that brought them to Mid Atlantic and Josh Mayse to begin with, says Knaub, as they recognized that a cobot could work safely alongside employees while they performed more value-added activities, such as machine setup and programming.
Elevator to success
“That elevator bracket job was one that we highlighted immediately for the new system,” he says. “All we have to do is present the cobot with a stack of flat blanks, hit cycle start and come back to a pallet of finished parts. If someone gets too close to the work zone or the operator needs to check on something, the cobot slows down or stops depending on the situation. It’s been a real success story for us.”
Working with Mid Atlantic has also been a success, Knaub adds. As a beta site for the press brake operator package, he admits there were some small issues early on with the machine interface. Despite this, the service and support team worked through these “small tweaks” quickly and were very supportive of PCI’s implementation project overall.
“They connected with us on a weekly Zoom call to check in on our progress and answer any questions,” he says. “It was a good partnership, and we look forward to seeing what the cobot can do in other areas of the shop.”
Mayse says results like these are exactly what Mid Atlantic intended when they first began developing the system two years ago.
“For contract manufacturers doing medium to higher volumes like PCI, we’re seeing ROI in a year and a half and expect that to come down even further the more they use the system,” he adds. “Compared to a traditional robot with its extensive safety requirements and high investments costs, cobots are a gamechanger.”