Canadian Plastics

Going down the line with cell automation

Increasing efficiency through cell automation is one of the best ways plastics processors can cut costs to remain competitive in today's global economy....

March 1, 2006   By Tom Venetis, editor



Increasing efficiency through cell automation is one of the best ways plastics processors can cut costs to remain competitive in today’s global economy.

Simply put, cell automation is nothing more than enabling workstations, robotics equipment and control systems to work together to manufacture parts with minimal or no human intervention.

However, the benefits of cell automation can be lost if companies don’t have an employee specifically dedicated to harmoniously bringing the parts of a cell automation solution together.

Harold Luttmann, general manager of robotics and automation with Guelph, Ont.-based Engel Canada Inc. said automating various or all parts of a manufacturing process can help a company reduce a number of costs, thereby making itself more competitive.

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The first step towards building an automated cell involves evaluating the entire manufacturing process and removing inefficiencies and bottlenecks in the production run.

LONG-TERM CYCLES, LONG-TERM BENEFITS

However, cell automation is not very well suited for very short-term, specialized production runs because the production requirements for different applications can vary significantly.

But streamlining production is especially effective if the production run is over a very long term, with the same part or parts being manufactured year after year.

Cell automation can also result in spin-off benefits throughout an entire operation. “Automation forces all of your upstream processes to become more capable and efficient,” said Terry Sharp, chief technology officer for Two Stage Innovation Inc. in Milton, Ont., a provider of robotic and automation solutions. “If you have a problem in a particular area of your plant, you are going to see it with automation. Once you find (that problem) you can begin to do something about it.” In many manual operations, he added, the operators spend time correcting the symptoms of the problem, which prevents it from ever being fully addressed.

Cell automation can also increase part quality; for example, automating the manufacture of medical equipment removes the need for employees to physically handle the parts, which can prevent accidental damage or contamination that could affect how the parts operate in a critical medial delivery device.

“If you have a ‘push-line’ production, where you are simply snapping on a soap dish cover, that kind of operation can be done manually,” said Norton Kaplan, director of product marketing with Automated Assemblies Corp. in Clinton, Mass., a supplier of automation and injection molding solutions. “But if you are putting together two parts for a medical inhaler, you (must have) some kind of automaton to make sure the actuator is placed correctly in the holder.”

SOLVING THE LABOUR-QUALITY EQUATION

The combination of labour savings and quality control is often the magic tipping point for many turning to cell automation.

For example, by removing a single employee from a 24×7 production environment a processor could save about US$84,000 per year if that person receives a wage of about US$10 per hour.

“We are finding that even customers in the Southern U.S. and Mexico, where labour is relatively inexpensive, are opting for automation to obtain improved quality,” noted Doug Matton, general manager for Reko Automation and Machine Tool Inc. in Tecumseh, Ont., a manufacturer of injection molds and automation systems. “Even if they have lower labour costs [but] supply a bad quality part, the cost of the extra inspections needed to ensure part quality will far outweigh the cost of automation.”

EXPERT OPINIONS

There are many different aspects involved in cell automation, from the mold and machinery, to the robotic systems, control mechanisms and conveyor systems. All have to work together smoothly and this is a difficult integration, requiring experience.

Companies need to find cell automation integrators with established experience bringing all the different parts of a manufacturing cell together successfully, said Stephan Bourdages, vice-president with Automatisation S.A.B. Inc. in Varennes, Que., a supplier of injection molding machinery and robotic systems.

Most importantly, the right integrator needs to be chosen since this will either make or break the installation, said Doug Neibruegge, segment driver for plastics in North America with ABB Inc. in Brampton, Ont., a robotics solution provider.

The integrator will first ask for details about the part being manufactured. This is critical because the nature of the part will influence the design of the mold, which in turn will influence how the different parts of the cell will come together.

For instance, the mold’s design and operation will influence the type of robot used to remove the part; for example, either gantry-style or side-mounted, pick-and-place or six-axis articulated robot, said Christian Weiss, Wittmann product manager Markham, Ont.-based Nucon Wittmann Inc., a supplier of robotic solutions.

Engel’s Luttmann said it is always best if the integrator comes into the process as early as possible and is supplied with all critical information. Since any change to the part and mold will affect every part of the cell, integrators need to be notified or the cell will not work.

“But another reason for keeping those lines of communications open is that because Engel makes molding machines, we can take that information (and use it to) make suggestions as to what can be done to improve all sorts of production (processes). But we need to have that information up front and right away.”

THERE IS ONLY ONE GENERAL IN CHARGE

Every integrator and supplier of turn-key cell automation solutions insists on designating one person to be in charge of integrating the cell parts and to co-ordinating communications between different parties. And the plastics processor should not be in charge of the project.

Bruce Catoen, vice-president of automated systems with Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. in Bolton, Ont., an integrator of automation solutions, said a sure way to derail a cell automation project is to have an inexperienced person in charge. He likens it to building or renovating a home; the general contractor, not the homeowner, should control the operation.

When a processor is in charge of a project and something goes wrong, fingerpointing will start — everyone will blame someone else, Catoen explained.

Husky avoids this by taking owner-ship of the cell; “when we put a cell together, the buck stops with Husky,” he added.

Engel’s Luttmann agreed and noted that many of its cell automation customers choose Engel because they want to only deal with a single integrator and supplier. Engel handles everything from the molds to the tooling and automation equipment; or it will work with third-party suppliers to get the different solutions needed for a customer.

Also, putting a single person or integrator in charge of the project can ensure the solution is flexible enough to be used again when a new part is to be manufactured in the future. An all-too-common mistake is for companies to insist on a cell automation solution that is inflexible, wedded to a single production environment or the manufacture of a particular part.

Reko’s Matton said companies need to make sure the cell is flexible enough so that if in the future a new part is to be manufactured or changes are to be made to the manufacture of an existing part, the cell can accommodate those changes. Cell automation is an expensive investment so ensuring the cell can stand the test of time will guarantee a company will get continual benefits.


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