For some time now, automation in fabricating operations has been considered commonplace – robots and cobots are the norm on shop room floors all around the country. For decades, traditional robots have been consistently making high-quality welds while ensuring precision and reducing human errors. And now, cobots are doing that as well, plus a slew of other repetitive tasks, allowing humans to focus on more complex aspects of the job while staying safe.
While automation has proliferated, a lot of it has primarily been seen in the welding, laser cutting and machine tending spaces. So, it should come as no surprise that press operations are ripe for automation, too.
Clearly, many press operations have already been outfitted with simple automation – conveyors and other load/unload systems that have been in place for ages – but there is always more that can be done. In doing so, metal forming companies can increase their throughput and profitability while flexing one of the best strategies to battle labor shortages.
The short list
According to an article written by Rob Bisbee, automations team lead, Greenerd Press & Machine Co., the ways and reasons to automate a press are vast. From the very simple to the very complex, he listed the following as examples of how a press operation could be automated:
- Traditional load/unload robots for high speeds and heavy loads
- Cobots for cumbersome and repetitive tasks that can work safely alongside operators without guarding
- Automated inspection systems, using various sensors, lasers and cameras for a variety of monitoring purposes
- Operator production indicators to deliver part loading feedback, stuck part indicators and part quality reporting
- Raw material feeders that are controlled by the press
- Scrap removal systems or rewinder systems integrated into a machine
- Automatic die loading and unloading controls for faster changeover times
- Remote uploading of setup parameters to a press, which can include pulling production data from a press to a remote data analyzer
- Integrating multiple presses into a fully automated cell with shared material handling systems
And that’s just the short list. Considering all of the options, Bisbee recommended that businesses work with a press manufacturer or integrator to cut through the noise and identify the right automation approach.
The right partner
Working with any press manufacturer or integrator might not suffice, though. Bisbee said that it’s advantageous to partner with a press manufacturer that has extensive experience providing integrated press automation solutions. It’s also helpful if the press manufacturer has a history of automating a range of applications for a variety of industries. A proven track record helps ensure the best technical solutions are being brought to meet a company’s challenges.
“Another option is to work with a generic automation house or systems integrator,” he reported, adding that “while this can be beneficial for non-press projects, these sources may lack the specific product knowledge that comes with years of working with presses, tooling, dies and product handling that accompanies the press industry.”
The chosen system integrator should serve as a consultant of sorts, guiding a business toward a tailored solution by first pinpointing operational challenges and bottlenecks. Generic systems integrators may not have the specific technical experience to know where to start, what options might be available or how other similar businesses have tackled similar challenges.
Another reason that Bisbee shies away from generic systems integrators is the challenge of identifying the “right size” for the automation. Large multi-press, multi-robotic autonomous working cells are not exactly the norm. On top of that, automation needs to work for the metal forming company’s current operations, but it also needs to be adaptable to whatever production needs the company may face in the future.
When working with a press manufacturer that is also an authorized system integrator, a business owner can sleep easy knowing that not only do they fundamentally understand the inner workings of a forming/fabricating operation, they also know the upstream and downstream processes. These, too, must be analyzed.
“Parts could be reoriented upstream of the press to reduce transfer times,” Bisbee mentioned. “Also, one process downstream of the press could be eliminated when the automation at the press was expanded to directly feed the next process.”
In 1934, Greenerd built its first hydraulic press and since then has become known for its unique hydraulic press applications and automation solutions for a range of industries. It is also an authorized Fanuc system integrator. At Fabtech 2023, which will be held at Chicago’s McCormick Place, Greenerd will demonstrate this prowess by discussing its new automated two-press, two-robot production cell. The turnkey cell was designed, engineered and built by the engineers at Greenerd and was developed with the goal of providing unattended production capabilities for large aluminum pressure vessels.
“Using sensors to locate pallets of blanks that have been placed in a pallet staging area, the first Fanuc robot picks a blank, detects and rejects any double-blanks, and transfers the blank to a fully integrated and automated blank lube station,” a recent Greenerd press release explained. “That robot then picks a previously lubricated blank and loads it into a Greenerd deep-draw press with a 76-in. stroke.”
From there, the second Fanuc robot transfers the formed parts to a second Greenerd press for the punching operation. A shared control station sets the operating parameters for both presses and controls both robots. When it’s time for a new part, the entire cell – both presses and robots – is automatically updated with the new process parameters.
“To meet the demands of today’s challenging applications, we provide manufacturers with press solutions that are flexible, productive and reliable as well as often being quite large and complex,” said Greenerd’s CEO, Jerry Letendre, in the press release. “For even greater manufacturing efficiency, we are able to provide our hydraulic press customers with turnkey, state-of-the-art robotic and other product handling solutions.”