Predictive programming

Utilizing old and new technology, a specialty job shop achieves consistent quality

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Most job shops are at their best with a workplace full of seasoned machine operators. Given the skills gap/labor shortage, it’s safe to say that a good percentage of job shops aren’t quite at their best these days, at least not without programs that give newcomers a fighting chance at operating highly complicated equipment.

And then there are the job shops like Fab PSI, a manufacturing plant based in Quebec that offers turnkey services. The work is so customized that as Jean Beaudry, president of the company, puts it, “it’s really hard to find good people to hire because we need people who are closer to artists than to machine operators.”

Serving industries as varied as pulp and paper, aluminum, oil, cement, transportation and steel mills, Fab PSI designs and manufactures everything from hoppers to silos, tanks to piping, and jigs to walkways and mezzanines. Some of the work is specialized to an extreme.

“We need it to work the first time,” he says, “because that’s the only time we’ll do it.”

Adopting automation

Given the necessity of automation, more and more robotic technology is making its way into manufacturing. Unfortunately, programming a robot takes a specialized skill that few possess. The leaders at Fab PSI saw the need for more automated solutions, but did the company bring in a highly skilled and experienced programmer to make it work? They didn’t have to.

Quebec-based Fab PSI implemented Hypertherm’s Robotmaster software to achieve a custom approach for one-of-a-kind jobs. The result is more consistent cuts with the Yaskawa Motoman HP20D and Hypertherm plasma cutting technology.

The company implemented Hypertherm’s Robotmaster software that, “enables your robot for short production runs, even for runs of one,” which is a perfect match for companies like Fab PSI. The software works with Fab PSI’s Motoman HP20D robot and Hypertherm HPR130XD plasma technology.

After seeing what Robotmaster could do while attending a trade show, Beaudry recognized it was more advanced than what competitors were offering, but another reason his company chose Robotmaster is because the employees in the shop are not “people trained for robot programming or working with robots,” he says. “These guys are not CAD specialists or robot specialists. They’re all generalists. Robotmaster is a tool that is easy to understand for everyone.”

Another selling point from Robotmaster is that the software “takes the programmer out of the programming” with intuitive, graphical interfaces that are customized to the user’s application.

Robotic history

The first implementation of 6-axis programing occurred in 2002 with Robotmaster V1. The next year, it was applied to giants like Fanuc, Motoman and Staubli Robots. Seemingly every year, the software was breaking new ground with focuses on trimming and milling, kinematics capabilities, optimization functionality and interactive simulation while achieving accolades, like winning Robotics Business Review’s Game Changer Award in 2013 and ranking in the CIO Review Magazine’s top 20 most promising robotics solutions providers.

Hypertherm provides the muscle behind the plasma cutting power at Fab PSI.

Rather than having a hand in a variety of technologies, Robotmaster is 100 percent focused on robots. The team that designs the software, which is made up of experts and practitioners in kinematics, mathematical optimization and simulation, is constantly looking into new CAD/CAM algorithms and is committed to developing quick and easy programming tools for the robotics and manufacturing industries.

“Equally important,” according to the Robotmaster website is that “we have created strategic alliances with major players in the robot manufacturing industry to assure the delivery of seamlessly integrated, leading-edge solutions to our customers.”


Ease of use


Utilizing state-of-the-art manufacturing solutions can also prolong the life of what would seem to be antiquated equipment. For example, years ago, Fab PSI bought at auction an old prototype of the Machitech BeamCut 360. Beaudry says that despite the fact that the machine was built to do a large series of identical parts, it could be of great use to his company with the customization that the Robotmaster software offers.

“We stripped it down,” he says of the BeamCut machine, “then bought Robotmaster so we could program it our own way.”

Utilizing Robotmaster, Beaudry says they are afforded a simulator option that shows them what his team is capable of doing on any specific job, they then “press play” and let the machine do the work.

The 6-axis HP20D robot, along with Robotmaster software, provides the flexibility Fab PSI requires to deliver on highly unique jobs.

And while this automation feature is a definite perk, there is also a safety component, not in the sense of health, “but when programming the robot, you can do really weird and complicated stuff that can make the robot crash,” he says. “With Robotmaster, there is a collision protection module. You see what you get before you send it to the robot. It’s a lot easier and a lot safer to operate.”

It’s true that it is not easy to intuitively check robot joint limits and how robot-to-part collisions could occur, which is why the software allows the user to check for everything from reach and joint limitations to potential collisions. But the ability to predict the path the robot takes to complete a job also helps gain more consistent quality. For example, in less automated solutions, consistency only comes at the hand of a skilled worker who is responsible for planning the layout of the cuts and making the cuts (whether it’s a series of holes or any other type of cut geometry). And despite the level of skill, human error is always a factor to consider in limiting consistency.

“You don’t need someone really specialized on the machine,” Beaudry says. “It’s the machine doing the work. It makes it easier to have maybe a little bit less-qualified people working at this machine compared to if we didn’t have this solution at all.”

Fab PSI

Hypertherm

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