The Road to Automation

The integration of robotics and automation in metalworking operations is becoming increasingly prevalent, driven by a need for enhanced productivity,…


The integration of robotics and automation in metalworking operations is becoming increasingly prevalent, driven by a need for enhanced productivity, improved precision and a safer working environment. Over the last decade, there has been a significant increase in robotic welding systems. Today, collaborative robot or cobot welders help address the increasing challenges of finding skilled welders across a variety of industries.

Material removal is a fundamental aspect of metalworking and particularly welding – think grinding, sanding, finishing, polishing, deburring and cutting. While a lot of material removal is done after welding, some takes place before or even during the welding process, such as surface prep or weld cleaning between passes. Whether it’s polishing stainless steel to a mirror finish or grinding heavy flashing on a cast metal part, these processes are time consuming, physically demanding and require experienced workers that are challenging to find, hire and retain.

Although robotic welding systems can help shoulder some of that burden, welders are still responsible for downstream processes like weld grinding and deburring. But what if the welder isn’t available? It’s just one of the reasons a company might consider automating their material removal processes.

Therefore, to effectively plan and execute the integration of robotic or automated material removal in a metalworking operation, a structured roadmap should be implemented.

Before implementing an automated abrasive process, be sure to consider the variability in the process, such as different shapes or surface finishes.

Assessing readiness

Assessing organizational readiness is a crucial step in planning a new implementation as well as when designing the improvement or expansion of a pre-existing system. There are a few key considerations when assessing readiness to automate.

One is to evaluate the existing infrastructure to ensure compatibility with automated systems, including available power supply, networking capabilities and space for installation. Most metalworking machinery require the same power sources as robotic material removal cells, so most facilities will already be well-equipped.

Also, assess the skills of the existing workforce to identify training needs. Some questions to ask: Could current employees/operators easily transition from the manual work to system management? Do they have prior experience with similar systems?

Cobots, which are becoming more popular due to ease of use and limited programming, are great in certain applications, but may not deliver the productivity of industrial robots. Therefore, understand the safety regulations and space requirements that must be considered when deciding on different types of robots.

Deburring and deflashing are just two of several material removal operations that can be automated to offer fabricators the competitive edge they need.

Defining requirements

Defining the specific requirements for a new system is crucial. Does 100 percent of the process need to be automated? What about only 80 percent of the process that includes the least pleasant tasks for a workforce to perform? These requirements encompass:

  • Material types and sizes. Identify the types and sizes of materials that will be processed to determine capabilities and specifications. Robot payload is an important factor to consider based on the size of the end-of-arm tooling, including whether it’s a tool-in-hand or part-in-hand process. Tool in hand refers to the robot arm being directly equipped with a tool. Part in hand means that the robot picks up the pieces, bringing them to a stationary working tool.
  • Throughput and capacity. Estimate the required throughput and capacity of the system to ensure it can handle production demands. Also ensure that upstream processes can provide the expected workload to the system.
  • Process variability and ensuring machine compliance. Consider the variability in the material removal process, such as different shapes or surface finishes, and ensure the system can adapt and adjust accordingly. When looking at material removal, traditional accessories like abrasives naturally wear down as they work. To ensure an automated system is getting the highest output out of the abrasive tools used, force compliance devices can allow for automatic compensation for part shape variability and orientation of working angle.

Watch the short video from Walter Surface Technologies to get inspired about the possibility of automating an abrasive operation.

Selecting the right technology

Choosing the appropriate technology is critical in the implementation process. Steps to take include evaluating robotic platforms and selecting one that aligns with specific requirements and budget. If there are pre-existing robots or a preferred brand, businesses can often find a capable robot or system from that trusted partner, which ensures maximum compatibility and minimizes the need for additional training.

Next, select suitable end-effector tools based on material and process. Also, consider if the robotic process will be part in hand or tool in hand or both. Compliance tools are often required when working with consumable products – like abrasive wheels – that change size and shape as they are used. An end-effector tool that can compensate for wear or change in force based on directional usage is crucial to ensure process reliability and conformity across the life of the consumable as well as to eliminate the need to reprogram machine paths for every piece.

Lastly, choose a robust and user-friendly control system that allows for easy programming, monitoring and integration with other manufacturing components. Choose a good integration partner that has experience automating the desired operations as they can handle programming uncertainties.

Designing the system

Designing an automated system involves creating a detailed layout and architecture that ensures optimal performance and safety. When one looks at an automated material removal system, even though the goal is to replace previously manual tasks, the process itself can sometimes be modified when adopting a robotic cell. Areas of access, piece fixturing, size of tool and consumable used are all variables that are typically constrained when it comes to manual workers and the tools that they use.

When it comes to robotic systems, the end result can often be attained faster and more efficiently thanks to the wider breath of accessories that can be used.

Ensure seamless integration with other manufacturing processes and systems, creating a cohesive and efficient production line. Ensuring that the automated system will have no adverse effects on any other upstream or downstream processes is important. Understanding the starting point of the workpiece and the desired end result and what happens in between is all part of the design process.

Incorporate safety features, such as sensors, emergency stops and protective enclosures, to mitigate risks. Often, cobots are marketed as not needing an enclosure due to slower moving speeds or built-in safety measures that stop the robot when unexpected contact occurs. For material removal with high-speed or hazardous accessories on the end-of-arm tooling that could potentially cause physical harm if not properly considered, cobots are not necessarily the safest choice.

Design the system to be easily accessible for maintenance and equipped with user-friendly interfaces to streamline operations. An important thing to evaluate is where, when and how operators need to access the workpieces that have been worked on by the robot. Should the robot have two separate working bays, so while one workpiece is being loaded/unloaded, the robot remains in action? If maintenance needs to be performed on the robot, will it require dismantling the entire cell to access certain parts?

Testing and integration

Thorough testing of the system is essential to identify existing or potential issues to ensure a smooth integration into the production environment. Before embarking on an entire automation project, consider consulting a robotic laboratory that can replicate or program a version of desired manufacturing tasks on an actual part. If the desired consumable is known, contact the provider to see if it offers a clear pathway toward automation and works with partners offering complementary services.

Investing a relatively small sum early in the project (usually a few thousand dollars) to validate the process pays off. Thorough planning and validation beforehand reduce the risk of unexpected issues or delays as well as additional costs that may be incurred.

Find a “derisking” lab with similar types of equipment to run simulations, which up front can validate the subsequent hundreds of thousands that are likely to be part of any automation project. Verify that the system operates according to specifications and meets predefined requirements for accuracy, speed and safety. Ensure that process achievement is feasible.

Integrate the automated system with existing processes, machinery and software to validate seamless communication and data exchange. If the robotic system is to be integrated with other robotic systems, such as loading/unloading and conveyor systems, ensure that the integrator accurately assesses all relevant systems and how they interact. This helps avoid a new system working at the expense of another upstream/downstream system because their ability to communicate wasn’t considered. It also reduces the risk of injuries, delays, machine idleness and damage to equipment.

Provide comprehensive training to operators and maintenance personnel to familiarize them with the system, its operation and troubleshooting procedures. Ensure that the robot OEM, integrator and end-of-arm tooling manufacturer are available and willing to provide training and support beforehand. If not, more engaged partners, even if the cost up front is a bit higher, might be a better choice.

Deploy the automated system into the production environment and closely monitor its performance during the initial stages. Offer training and support to operators to ensure a smooth transition. Make sure that over the first few days and weeks, the new system is being closely monitored and that there are designated go-to workers that can ensure the system’s success.

Walter Surface Technologies can help customers implement a variety of material removal solutions. Watch the video to learn more.

Ongoing maintenance

Continuous maintenance and optimization are critical to maximize a system’s benefits. Therefore, it’s key to understand that there might be a need to further improve on the original system design as more is learned about it, new technologies come out or new needs arise. Key actions include establishing a maintenance schedule to inspect and maintain the system, replacing worn-out parts and optimizing performance. Generally, all components of the robotic or automated system should have a manufacturer-recommended maintenance schedule.

A second key action is regularly monitoring system performance and collecting data to identify areas for improvement and optimization. Implement feedback mechanisms to gather insights from operators and other stakeholders, driving continuous improvement in the system’s efficiency and effectiveness. When evaluating this data, always consider the programmed working parameters of the consumable or machine speed.

After running the system through enough cycles to ensure the robotic or automated system can deliver what is intended, test accelerated parameters to see if cycle times can be further reduced with the same end results. Perhaps different abrasives accessories can be used to further reduce the steps required in the process. All these variables and their impact can be tested once the system is functional to ensure constant enhancement of the process.

By following a structured roadmap, organizations can achieve successful and sustainable implementation. Even more so, by choosing to work alongside an experienced team, planning and implementation can take place within weeks instead of months. With proper planning, execution, guidance and recommendations from trusted experts, the integration of automation into material removal processes offers a competitive advantage in the industry and ensures a sustainable combination of human and robotic resources to grow and scale a business in the years to come.

Walter Surface Technologies

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