For years, automated picking and sorting has been the great white whale of the metals fabricating industry. When fiber lasers came onto the scene, manual laborers struggled to keep up with the speed of the new cutting machines, causing parts to pile up and press brake operators to wonder what was happening back at the laser. It was a bottleneck that few could solve beyond throwing a bunch of cash at a manual labor workforce.
Knowing that no one wants to do that repetitive, backbreaking work anyway, equipment manufacturers started developing solutions that at the time seemed exciting but weren’t necessarily practical for small to medium-sized businesses. These gantry-style offerings were and still are sophisticated, large scale and expensive.
Mazak Optonics Corp. was among those manufacturers, working behind the scenes on a gantry-style sorting system of its own. But, as others in the industry started taking the lead, internal conversations at Mazak sparked a different idea.
“We thought we would change the direction a little bit and invite the smaller customers to be able to reach that [sorting] dream but with robots, which are so familiar these days,” says Naoko McIntosh, an automation specialist at Mazak. “Everybody has a robot, and they know how to use it.”
The result was the Smart Cell, Mazak’s sorting system that is driven by a 6-axis industrial robot from Yaskawa. Overall, McIntosh describes the system as “approachable and accessible,” the exact characteristics those smaller customers need from their automation.
“The gantry-style sorting systems on the market are very nice, but those systems can be very expensive and typically have a huge footprint,” she says. “A small job shop couldn’t even consider buying something like that – it’s basically as expensive as their laser.”
The brass tacks
First things first: How fast can a robot really pull parts out of a nest and then sort them? Can they keep up with a fiber laser to avoid the dreaded bottleneck?
“Sheet pick time is no more than a few seconds,” McIntosh says. “The robot can sort directly on the laser shuttle table, which means it can start sorting immediately. For nests with a lot of small parts, you can get creative and pick multiple parts at the same time in one group.”
That capability is thanks to the various grippers available on the Yaskawa robot, which is available in a range of payloads. Some of the grippers have multiple action cards or magnets in one attachment, enabling users to pick multiple parts as one group. Magnet grippers are available for steel, and suction cup grippers are available for the remaining non-magnetic materials fabricators work with.
Keeping things tailored to the smaller customer, the base design of the Smart Cell is compact. Floor space is a hot commodity for any fabricator, let alone for a mom-and-pop shop, so the cell was designed to be incredibly modular, allowing it to be integrated into the space that’s available.
But, as a fabricator grows, the Smart Cell, too, can scale to future needs. When the needs arise, customers can incorporate value-added automation, such as a tower or conveyor. As just one example, at the Mazak booth at Fabtech 2023 in Chicago, the Smart Cell was configured with a tower system where the robot was working in a separate station away from the laser. Whether the Smart Cell is working standalone or integrated into the various automation systems from Mazak, lights-out operations are possible – and approachable.
“At the end of the day, it’s an entry-level offering,” says Jacob Fogarty, an automation specialist at Mazak. “We consider it user-friendly and budget-friendly. It’s not going to outpace four guys uploading parts on a table, but if you normally have one or two operators on a table, it’s going to keep up with that workflow.”
The target customer
The Smart Cell on display at Fabtech 2023 served as the system’s big industry debut. Prior to that launch, however, a Mazak beta customer in Ohio was already arranging delivery for a system in early 2024. Considering the level of repeat work the fabricator typically takes on and based on their location – a rural part of the state where labor is even harder to come by – they are the ideal target customer.
“It also helps that they have already been using welding robots, so they know what they are getting themselves into,” Fogarty explains. “They are happy to jump on board with this rather than a more complex gantry-style system.”
The customer’s system will be customized with their standalone laser, which currently relies on manual labor for loading and offloading. The goal is to eliminate the physical labor, automate that task and run the laser unattended overnight.
The company has only been running one shift, so having a robot that can run 24 hours a day opens up a lot of possibilities. Because the robot can load the blank sheet, sort and stack the parts after the sheet is cut, and then stack the skeleton and replace it with a new blank sheet, minimal staff, if any, will be required overnight.
“They are cutting the same part all the time, so there is no reason for people to continue that repetitive loading and unloading,” McIntosh says. “Soon, the staff can just set up the job before they leave and then return in the morning to find a skid full of finished parts ready to go to the press brake.
“The true job shop, however – the type that never sees the same nest twice – might not be the ideal customer,” she cautions. “Programming is still a part of the process, so you wouldn’t want to program it once and never take advantage of that work again. It could add up to a lot of programming time. The customer in Ohio does thousands of the same parts each month. For the one-off jobs, they are happy to use manual manpower.”
In Europe, another beta customer is already relying on the Smart Cell for lights-out processing. Because of the war in Ukraine, energy security across the continent has been threatened, resulting in usage restrictions and increases in cost.
“The customer is in Italy and isn’t allowed to run their laser during the day,” McIntosh explains. “They can only run it at night, but because labor is a problem over there, too, they can’t even find the minimal labor required to tend to the laser at night. The price of using the power at night is one third compared to running it during the day. They just don’t have any other option.
“Unlike the EU countries, America isn’t reliant on any other country for our power,” she says. “However, we said the same thing about the labor shortage not that long ago.”
For the Smart Cell, the speed at which the system can work is closely tied to the ease of programming. Essentially, programming the Yaskawa robot happens through an extension of Mazak’s nesting program.
“It uses the cutting file to know where all the parts are on the sheet,” Fogarty says. “To unload the sheet and organize the parts on the pallets, it’s literally a drag-and-drop option. Taking an image of the part, you just drag it to an image of whatever pallet it needs to be placed on where the parts will automatically be stacked up. It only takes a couple minutes to program.”
The program also guides the operator to which gripper will work with which parts. The only thing that the operator needs to tell it is the location to offload the parts. If a company is doing a kit sorting or a tile with the same part, the operator can indicate on which skids which parts need to go. And once the robot is taught, it can recall the program for the next time the part or kit needs to be processed.
“We didn’t want to offer anything too complicated or intimidating,” McIntosh says. “It needed to be simple to use and easy to understand. As an example, if a customer tells the robot to move a part off of the sheet in a way that isn’t considered optimal picking, the interface turns red to warn them that there may be a better way. It’s very intuitive.”
Not only is there no new software to buy or learn, the robot also doesn’t require a vision system, which would add to the complexity of setup, programming and maintenance.
“Simplifying the overall process was our main goal,” Fogarty says. “Compared to the larger gantry-style sorting systems, maintenance is straightforward. A robot is a robot, so the maintenance requirements are the same. After all, robots are considered low maintenance these days.”