Thermal treatment company HWL recently deployed the intelligent vision system MIRAI from Micropsi Industries in its Berlin factory to successfully take over the repetitive task of handling reflective metal objects despite the variance in size, position and appearance of the objects and changing lighting conditions.
HWL Löttechnik GmbH is a Berlin-based, family-run thermal treatment company with customers in power plant engineering, automotive, electronics, aerospace, tool industries, and plant and fixture construction. Just like many other small and medium-size enterprises, HWL faces the complex realities of growing labor shortages, the ongoing energy crisis and the intricate nature of production processes, particularly in high-mix, low-volume manufacturing. To overcome these challenges, HWL directs part of its investments toward the adoption of state-of-the-art technologies and the optimization of operational processes, positioning itself as an attractive employer.
At HWL, a commitment to the highest quality standards and continuous innovation goes hand in hand with prioritizing employees’ expertise and satisfaction. Recognizing the physically demanding and repetitive work involved in thermal treatment and the increased workload for staff due to labor shortages, Kai Lembke, managing director, set out to identify the task that could benefit the most from automation.
Collaborating with his dedicated team, Lembke identified a prime candidate for automation: the loading of metal parts onto racks from washing baskets. Before heat treatment, the serial parts handled by HWL undergo a meticulous cleaning process in a cabin washing facility. Each customer typically delivers around 900 to 1,000 parts in large loading carriers, which employees manually transfer into washing baskets. The parts in the baskets are then carefully placed onto multi-tiered racks using a peg system before being transported to the oven for heat treatment.
The immense diversity in size and weight of the metal parts, combined with their fragile nature prior to heat treatment, makes the handling process extremely complex. The following types of variances in the process made automation with conventional solutions impossible:
- Variance in the size and weight of the parts
- ariance in the positioning of the parts in the washing basket
- Variance in the position of the racks
- Variance in the appearance of the parts due to reflection and changing lighting conditions
In October 2022, a robot equipped with the artificial intelligence (AI)-powered control system MIRAI took over the task of loading the parts. MIRAI attaches to and augments industrial robots. Once fitted with MIRAI, a robot can perceive its workspace through cameras and correct its movements where needed as it performs a task.
After the washing process is completed, the MIRAI system takes control of the robot. Guided by MIRAI, it individually lifts the delicate parts from the washing baskets and places them on the pegs in the racks. The AI-based vision system automatically adapts to the varying sizes and weights of the highly individualized parts. Unlike traditional vision systems, even changing lighting conditions and resulting reflections on the surface of the parts does not affect the functionality and precision of the system.
“By automating processes with MIRAI, we can save costs and position ourselves as an innovative and modern company while enhancing the attractiveness of our workplace,” Lembke explains.
Since the implementation of MIRAI, HWL employees have taken on the responsibility of managing and retraining the system, especially important when faced with changing requirements or environmental modifications.
“The fact that these adjustments can be made by our employees without the need for experienced programmers from the manufacturer is a significant advantage,” Lembke says. “We have even been able to optimize cycle times by 20 percent. That’s exactly the flexibility we need. By automating processes, we can save costs, position ourselves as a progressive and modern company, and enhance the attractiveness of our workplace.”
As a result of these positive experiences, HWL envisions adding more AI-based applications soon.