Make your mark

Thanks to a new automated laser marking cell, fabricators can secure their longevity in an increasingly competitive marketplace

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After cutting, bending and welding, it can be quite costly – and frustrating – if a part has to be scrapped because the laser marking process was incorrect. But unfortunately, it happens all the time.

“The laser marking process is almost always one of the last steps in production,” Jeff Kniptash, sales manager, Americas at FOBA, says. “Companies put in so much investment prior to the part getting to this stage of the process, so by automating laser marking, you remove a variable in your production line that can, if not automated, pose a risk of scrap and lost labor.”

Kniptash’s suggestion for automation seems straightforward, but over the years, manufacturers have decided that the programming requirements for bin picking and part presentation are too complicated. So, they continue to do it the old, manual way.

The laser marking cell, which was made possible through a collaboration between Precision Cobots Inc., Apera AI, Universal Robots and FOBA Laser Marking + Engraving, can be modified to users’ needs.

“For the last 10 or 12 years, bin picking has been the holy grail of automation,” says John Bridgen, president, Precision Cobotics Inc. (PCI). “Early versions of bin picking solutions have stumbled often due to slow cycle times, sensitivity to lighting and complications with implementing the program, souring people on this approach to part presentation. But, AI and technology have evolved to make this all possible.”

The specific AI he’s referring to was developed at Apera AI, a company that uses artificial intelligence to provide complete robotic guidance for a variety of applications. Since the company’s founding and the maturation of its AI technology, laser marking and object handling installations are on the rise.

“Robots operating blindly can’t find objects in a space, so we essentially give them human-like sight and abilities,” explains Eric Petz, head of marketing at Apera. “Just like our eyes function through a left and right channel, we use cameras to provide that same type of 3-D vision to robots, allowing them to pick random objects out of a bin or assemble parts together. In the laser marking space, you could put a bunch of parts in front of a robot that it can pick randomly out of a bin and load and unload onto a machine.”

While Apera’s AI technology is a major gamechanger in the automation ecosphere, there is more to the story – specifically, the robot, the laser marking technology and equipment, as well as the integrator to tie it all together. For manufacturers, however, envisioning an automated laser marking process – AI bin picking or not – is also complicated.

Collaborative approach

To give potential users a way to visualize what an automated laser marking setup could look like on their shop floor, PCI, Apera AI, Universal Robots (UR) and FOBA Laser Marking + Engraving created a fully operational cell that can be modified to users’ needs. Essentially, the new cell is meant to be a conversation starter.

“The development of the cell was a collaborative effort,” Bridgen says. “The drive was to help customers succeed with automated laser marking by giving them a foundation to start with. That foundation sets up everyone for success. Without it, you end up with a disparate collection of technologies that can be overwhelming. It also creates a more concise contract so that the deliverables at the end of the project meet the expectations of all parties involved, most importantly the customer.”

The foundation Bridgen is describing is an automated cell that includes a UR cobot for loading and unloading parts into a FOBA laser marking enclosure. Bridgen’s role in the project was in part due to the fact that PCI is a certified partner with both Apera AI and UR. PCI’s slogan is “your partner in accessible automation.”

“That’s our approach to working with customers and vendors to make everyone successful,” Bridgen says. “It sets the expectation that success is based upon a partnership. It’s not a transaction when you source automation.”

Critical components

Each partner involved in the laser marking cell project is critical. Without one, the overall system wouldn’t work.

As mentioned, Apera AI essentially unlocked the final piece of the automation puzzle – part presentation. The company’s AI-driven vision system doesn’t require any hard automation or precisely aligned grids; just present a bin with the parts to mark, and the UR cobot starts picking them out to load into the laser marker. With the goal to place a part into the laser marker to mark it in the right spot with the right mark, Apera serves as the cobot’s guide.

Thanks to the technology behind Apera AI, manufacturers can simply present a bin with parts to mark, and the cobot can do the rest.

“Think of a cast of an automotive transmission where there’s a concave side and a convex side,” Petz explains. “The AI helps the robot understand exactly where the end-of-arm tool needs to go and then orients it to the correct side and correct place for laser marking.

“If you’re making the same part millions of times, then you go for hard automation that will probably work for years,” Silas Neale, channel development manager at UR, adds. “But, if you’re talking about most shops, you’re talking about a high-mix, low-volume environment. You can select the cobot you need with the right reach and payload, but how do you get it to identify the multitude of objects that will be processed by the laser marker?”

That’s where the AI comes in. Instead of programming the part in the environment where it will be picked, Apera receives a customer’s part drawing and trains the AI in simulation to understand its full geometry, including what it looks like under different lighting conditions. Even shiny metal parts that vision systems sometimes struggle with are no issue for the AI. Automated AI training times range from 48 hours to a few days, depending on the complexity of the task.

Upon receipt, an operator can be up and running within half an hour. Other than potentially changing the workholding or end effector for each new job, changeover is simple.

The laser marking technology from FOBA is also critical in terms of locating the part once inside of the enclosure and making sure it’s being marked to a super high accuracy. The company has been perfecting the process of marking and etching for more than 50 years. Today, FOBA is part of Danaher, which owns the Alltec family of laser marking brands, and will soon be spun off into a new public company called Veralto.

“We couple our expertise of laser marking, engraving and etching with patented vision technologies that we use within a laser cell to assist with part identification and placement of marking,” FOBA’s Kniptash says. “We have software capabilities where a robot can literally, with the UR robot and Apera’s AI technology, be the hands that actually hit start and allow the system to scan a barcode that then loads the job into the laser marker. One thing to help with the differentiation in the vision, our vision setup basically sees what the laser sees. The Apera AI technology sees everything else.”

Ample options

One of the main drivers behind the development of the system was to give potential users something to visualize, a foundation of sorts, in terms of the range of configuration options. Kniptash used the term “analysis paralysis” to describe the common condition that parties exhibit when even considering the idea of automation.

No matter the setup, the laser marking system will almost always be less complex than a traditional hard automation setup. A traditional model requires fixturing, which is eliminated thanks to the technologies from Apera and FOBA. Traditional setups also require safety fencing or guarding, which is also eliminated thanks to the use of UR’s inherently safe cobots.

“UR models are able to pick up parts weighing up to 44 lbs. and with a reach up to 69 in.,” Neale explains. “So when it comes to this total system package, we don’t see very many limitations at all.”

That longer reach also opens the door to creative system setups. Kniptash uses the medical components industry as an example.

“Medical parts can have extensive marking and, therefore, longer cycle times, so with the longer reach of the robot, tending two FOBAs in one cell can be a very attractive way to get a faster ROI thanks to that increased cycle rate,” he says. “And then when you pair that up with the flexibility of presenting parts that Apera offers, it all gets exponentially more exciting.”

The lack of limitations with the system is also seen in usability. Almost anyone can run one, regardless of their background. Bridgen attributes that to UR and its commitment to produce automation that is easy to use. “An operator who may be new to collaborative automation can support the UR robot successfully, which is a key differentiator,” he adds.

Value proposition

“The UR Academy is a great starting place for new cobot users,” Neale says. “It gives them a really good rundown of all of the different UR capabilities. Ease of use and flexibility are what we hang our hat on. Not only does that empower the end user, but it also enables our integration partners like Precision Cobotics to quickly deploy systems, which starts that ROI clock almost as soon as the customer gets their system.”

The benefits a user can expect from UR Academy are multi-faceted. Not only can a company get its new automation up and running faster, but it can also help employees get comfortable with the idea of robots on their shop floor. To say the least, taking advantage of the training system is highly recommended. 
 
“We always recommend UR Academy to customers, especially from the standpoint that the biggest thing a company could do to fail with automation is have the operators see it as a threat,” Bridgen explains. “The UR Academy can take an operator from ‘how can I make this fail’ to ‘where else can we use these?’ The goal should be to make them champions of, not competition for robots.” 

That type of education can also help fabricators confront the typical employee concern: Is the robot going to take my job? After UR Academy and a short amount of time overseeing the laser marking cells – instead of manually loading them – employees are quick to say goodbye to their previous work, which was dirty, dull and repetitive.

Watch the video to learn about Apera AI’s powerful technology and how it plays an integral role in the overall laser marking cell.

“That’s the value proposition,” Kniptash says, “enabling operators to take their knowledge and experience and do something that’s more value-add as opposed to mindlessly loading and unloading a piece of equipment.”

This approach to automation can help manufacturers be more flexible in a high-mix, low-volume environment. It gives them the ability to use labor efficiently, produce quality parts and, in turn, increase revenue streams.

“It’s all about excellence in American manufacturing,” Petz says. “We’ve seen a lot of reshoring, including the return of U.S. semiconductor processing, which is a huge story. Laser marking is a big part of quality processes and excellence in manufacturing. Automation offers a path to excellence for manufacturers and allows employees to develop new skills that are useful in a range of manufacturing activities.”

Bridgen concludes with the reminder that everyone in the industry is still struggling with labor.

“Not only can automation solve some of the challenges immediately, but it can attract a whole new generation of talent who’s comfortable programming on a pendant or a touchscreen,” he says.

Apera AI

FOBA Laser Marking + Engraving

Precision Cobotics Inc.

Universal Robots

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