Staying power

A switch to cobots helps a die caster keep jobs in the United States

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RCM Industries Inc., an Illinois-based manufacturer of die cast aluminum components for automotive and consumer products, recently found itself in competition with low-wage suppliers in Mexico for a large outsourced project. “We had to look at how to drive cost out of the product without reducing the value that we provide our customers,” says Mike Higgins, director of sales and marketing at RCM Industries. “Without using cobots, we would not have had a shot at that work.”

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Before the UR10e arrived at RCM Industries, Rob Marconi had the whole program for the cobot worked out, using Universal Robots’ free simulator program.

The automation project involved CNC machine tending that had specific requirements that were suited to the e-Series, a new line of collaborative robots, or cobots, from Universal Robots. “We recommended the UR10 e-Series cobot specifically because of the increased repeatability,” explains Cameron Friend, automation specialist at FPE Automation who consulted with RCM Industries. “Fifty microns was needed for their very high-precision application, and we also recommended the UR10e due to its force-torque sensing capability.”

RCM Industries has now deployed UR10e cobots in two identical cells where they each tend two dual-spindle CNC lathes in the same cycle, manufacturing a consumer plumbing product. Operators simply load parts on a table and the cobots move from station to station, picking up a raw part, putting it in a pre-fixture to align it correctly, placing it on the first chuck then the second chuck, and finally dropping the completed part onto a conveyor belt to return to the operator.

The cobot’s integrated force-torque sensing allows it to search for the correct position on the chucks and self-align. The force-torque sensing also enables the cobot to detect if a part is out of shape and reject those that don’t load correctly.

High-value roles

“One of the main tangible benefits that we got right away was a consistency of the throughput from those cells,” says Rob Marconi, director of engineering and technology at RCM Industries. “When operators were manually loading machines, they were often juggling multiple tasks such as checking parts and bringing parts in and out of the cell. That meant that even though they could load the machines fairly quickly, they could also be inconsistent. A robot consistently performs the same motion every time at exactly the same time, so we immediately saw about a 15 percent increase in throughput as soon as we deployed them.”

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The UR cobots can be programmed by simply grabbing the cobot arm and moving it through the desired waypoints.

While the cobot works, operators can freely enter the cell to perform other tasks. The ability to deploy without safety fencing after performing an initial risk assessment is a key advantage of cobots over traditional robots.

“If the cobot does not load successfully, it issues an error to the operator, in which case the operator can go into the cell, remove the part, and start up the cycle again without having to open up any safety caging and lock and tag-out the cell,” Marconi explains.

In addition, the lack of caging allows supervisors to make adjustments to machines while they are operating. “With the dimensions that we’re working with on these parts, it requires repeatedly checking the dimensions and making adjustments in the process, and we can continue running and allow the supervisor to make those adjustments,” Marconi says.

As a result of the cobot implementation, RCM Industries saw a dramatic decrease in the need for operators for those processes. For the machine tending application, the company typically ran three shifts with three operators running machines on each shift. The company was able to reduce that to one person managing all operations in each shift.

While staffing requirements for those particular tasks were reduced through collaborative automation, Higgins explains how the company was able to retain U.S. jobs by being more competitive.

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The UR10e is able to tend both machining cycles in the dual-spindle lathe by placing the part on the first, then the second chuck.

“We were able to gain revenue and gain capacity, so those employees could be deployed to other departments and other services within the organization,” he says. “When it comes to staffing in an urban area such as we are in, it’s very tough,” Higgins explains. “All of us manufacturers are fighting for skilled employees. We need to consider all areas where we can automate, especially in repetitive tasks. It’s become a necessity to us here to remain globally competitive.”

This is also true for safety reasons, as Marconi describes. “Any repetitive motion is something that we would like to automate for safety reasons and also for the difficulty of finding operators who want to do those types of activities. If it can be automated and it’s repetitive, we want to automate it.”

This translates to additional benefits for an RCM Industries’ customer, who can now keep its work in Chicago instead of having to outsource out of the country. “We look at the benefits we provided to this customer: specifically, we were closer to them, we understood their product, we had no language barrier, we were able to be on-site at their facility or they at ours in a moment’s notice, and with the automation we were able to bring consistency and sustainability to the process,” Higgins says.

Easy learning

The first application that RCM Industries deployed was an original UR10 handling the washing and drying of parts, which Marconi needed to optimize. “We actually had an intern come in with no robot experience whatsoever, learn the programming very easily and work with it throughout the summer to speed up the cycle to get it to keep up with the machine,” Marconi explains.

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Using a circular motion, the UR10 equipped with a UR+ certified gripper from Robotiq moves the part in front of the blower, drying off all water from the wash tank.

The cobots’ ease of programming was a key advantage for Marconi, who wanted to keep the company’s robotics experts focused on the die casting side of the business next door, where large, traditional industrial robots in cages pour molten metal into molds, rather than machine tending. With no background in robot programming, Marconi was able to download the PolyScope simulation software from Universal Robots and create the entire program structure before the cobot even arrived.

At that point, he simply downloaded the program to the cobot and taught it the way points on-site using the UR’s teach pendant.

To grip parts for the collaborative application, RCM Industries chose a PHD three-jaw Pneu-Connect gripper from the online UR+ showroom. The gripper is UR+ certified, which means that it is plug-and-play ready for integration.

“It has all the air valves already built in, all the wiring completed and any coding necessary to integrate with the robot already done,” Marconi says. “We simply plugged a wire into the robot, installed the software directly into the cobot’s teach pendant, and we were ready to go.”

Fast ROI

The combination of benefits of the cobots resulted in a quick payback of just under one year for RCM Industries. This calculation includes increased productivity and product consistency as well as reduced staffing for customer projects, including labor costs and rising employee benefit costs. RCM Industries also found cost savings from minimal electricity costs because UR cobots run on standard 110-V electricity, along with minimal maintenance required, with no need for fully certified automation engineers.

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After the second machining cycle is completed, the finished part is placed on an outbound conveyor.

Marconi expects to see continued benefits, as well. “We have many future applications planned, but I think one of the main benefits of these cobots is they’re so easily able to be redeployed,” he explains. “As our line expands and we’re looking to improve on throughput, we already have plans to take those cobots, move them to different areas and get better throughput from those cells without having to redo any kind of caging or wiring.” This is different than traditional industrial robots, which are rarely redeployed because of the costs and downtime related to moving bulky safety caging.

FPE Automation’s Friend notes the benefits, which include intuitive programming, great user experience, fast joint replacements, integrated force-torque sensing, and, of course, the increased repeatability of 30 microns for the UR3e and UR5e and 50 microns for the UR10e.

“Those are all very important factors, and the UR e-Series is becoming the No. 1 robot that we’re recommending to our customers because of how much benefit it adds to the applications that we’re seeing,” he says. “Besides high-precision machine tending, it can perform tasks such as deburring, dispensing, packing and palletizing.”

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Higgins concludes by noting that the company’s culture is now closely attuned to automation. “When we look at a manufacturing process and how we’re going to price our product, we’re not necessarily going to look at labor costs; we’re going to look at the labor cost in all cases against whether it can be automated,” he explains. “We’re always asking, ‘Can it be automated, what is that investment, and does it make sense?’ And we’re finding in more cases than not, it makes sense.”

RCM Industries Inc.

Universal Robots

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