No machine shop would turn down global leaders like Volvo and Renault when they come calling with orders – even if it means pushing capacity and productivity to the limit. But in a labor market where recruiting qualified employees is easier said than done, it takes innovation to increase output capacity.
The difficult task of filling employee vacancies has been hard to ignore ever since the baby boomers began exiting the workforce some 10 years ago. And the situation isn’t exclusive to the United States. It’s true for employers throughout much of Europe and around the globe. Undoubtedly, that challenge is magnified whenever order volumes ramp up and competition increases.
To meet growing market demand, a Swedish machine shop turned to specialized robot technology designed to meet the automation needs of small and medium-sized manufacturing businesses. Based in the southern Swedish town of Åseda and founded in 1983, FT-Produktion has a diverse staff of 25 employees with roots in Sweden, Norway, Lithuania, Syria and Thailand.
Working in tandem with neighboring company Profilgruppen, FT-Produktion supplies a range of customers – including carmakers, construction companies and the furniture industry – with metal profiles measuring up to 25.5 ft. that are used in the manufacture of balconies, solar panels, electrical fixtures and big rigs. FT-Produktion has annual turnover of just over USD $2 million.
“The demand for productivity continues to grow,” says Joakim Karlberg, who owns and operates FT-Produktion with his sister. “But relevant manpower is hard to come by these days. Thanks to automation, an operator can keep three or four machines running at once without stress.”
FT-Produktion discovered collaborative robot (cobot) solutions during a meeting with the machinery dealer Edströms, which supplies and installs turnkey cobot solutions with various processing machines. Edströms also provides training courses for employees tasked with operating and reconfiguring cobot arms, grippers and other end-of-arm tooling.
In 2017, the company made the largest investments in its history by renovating and updating much of its machinery. A small share of the overall investment went to a key addition: the introduction of a flexible robot cell comprising a UR5 cobot from Universal Robots, RG2 robot grippers from OnRobot and a ProFeeder from EasyRobotics.
This effective trio of Danish solutions has provided automated machine operation at FT-Produktion for more than a year. As a result, the sales department can accommodate orders with much higher volumes and shorter delivery times – without asking employees to work overtime.
“We chose a combination of solutions from OnRobot, Universal Robots and EasyRobotics because they are easy to program,” Karlberg says. “The investment will pay for itself in just nine months and now we can fill significantly bigger orders.”
With the cobot cell, a run of 150,000 units can be manufactured in less than two months with the robot working up to 16 hours a day, five days a week. Once every 25 sec., a gripper on the cobot arm removes a raw part from the ProFeeder’s parts tray in the mover and inserts it in a CNC machine. In the same cobot arm movement, the other gripper takes a finished part out of the CNC machine and places it in a container. This is made possible by the cobot arm’s “two hands,” an RG2 dual gripper from OnRobot that reduces the cycle time by 12 sec. per task. In other words, FT-Produktion saves 500 hours when manufacturing a series of 150,000 parts.
In the past, an operator had to manually insert four parts at a time into a CNC machine, wait for 90 sec. and then repeat the process for the duration of the workday. Now, the solution requires just 5 min. to manually fill one of the ProFeeder’s two movers.
When the robot has emptied one of the mover’s parts trays, the operator removes the empty mover and clicks a filled mover into place in the ProFeeder, allowing the CNC to rapidly resume operation. Using the Lean Robot Automation concept from EasyRobotics, the filling process can be further optimized if the machine shop places the parts for processing directly into one of the mover’s parts trays in the preceding step of the overall process.
“It seems like there’s no end to this economic upswing,” Karlberg says. “We can already see many more opportunities for improved optimization and automation and imagine we’ll have an additional two cobots in our facility within the next two years.”
“Plus,” he adds, “robotizing the high-volume production run has enabled us to eliminate monotonous manual tasks, giving operators more time to work on smaller runs with greater variation in their tasks.”
Mikael Andersson is a machine technician at FT-Produktion. One year ago, he also became a robot programmer and robot operator following two days of theoretical and hands-on training at Edströms. The training course is based on the Universal Robots Academy concept, which includes ongoing follow-up training via free e-learning courses. Andersson also received training in the use of the EasyRobotics’ ProFeeder and the dual gripper from OnRobot, enabling him to easily and flexibly install, program, operate and reconfigure the overall solution.
“Using the robots was actually more intuitive than I expected,” Andersson explains. “The cobot solution is so easy to reconfigure that even small production runs are feasible in terms of costs, and they make my job much more interesting.”
FT-Produktion manufactures 650 different aluminum profiles and fills 7,000 orders annually, with production runs ranging from five to 150,000 units. Given the range of tasks and volumes, flexible automation is absolutely essential. A single robot solution must be capable of handling many different parts with minimal downtime when reconfiguring from one production run to the next.
The new generation of cobot arms also requires high-performance accessories. For example, the functionality and user-friendliness of grippers ultimately determines the scope and variety of tasks and parts that can be automated as well as the ROI time for automation investments.
“It only takes 10 sec. to change to a different part on the robot’s display,” Andersson says. “The robots are not taking any jobs from workers. Instead, they’re enabling us to fill more orders and deliver more detailed parts with higher quality.”