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Flexibility and Productivity Dramatically Improved with Cobot Automation

When Hardwicke Enterprise, a subcontract CNC machining specialist needed to upscale production after it won a new contract, it needed a flexible, quick and simple solution to increase speed and ensure quality. It turned to metrology specialist The Sempre Group for support, who has been developing a new automated machine tending solution that saved Hardwicke Enterprise 52 hours of time that operators could allocate to other projects.

Hardwicke Enterprise specializes in the subcontract CNC machining of high quality turned and milled components. Established in 1967, the company has grown year on year and now operates with a team of eight to deliver precision machined components for companies in a variety of sectors, such as food manufacturing, aerospace and marine. For over three years, Hardwicke Enterprise has manufactured and supplied complex components to The Sempre Group to help it provide bespoke solutions.

Now, The Sempre Group is adding automation to its portfolio to leverage this even further and help manufacturers adopt a fully digitized approach to quality. Using the latest collaborative robotics, Sempre aims to supply easy-to-use, quick installed, flexible automation solutions with a rapid return on investment (ROI). These systems would suit businesses that want to improve productivity in quality processes, but cannot afford to automate their entire production line. So, when developing a new automated machine tending solution for smaller applications, The Sempre Group wanted to test the system with a customer to see how the technology could benefit the industry more widely.

Upscaling Production Quickly

Hardwicke Enterprise normally produces low volumes of bespoke parts for its clients. So, when it won a contract to manufacture 1,000 castor wheels in a short period of time, the team knew it had to increase productivity.

“To deliver this contract on time we needed to quickly find a way to increase production speed without compromising on quality,” explained Andrew Foster, managing director of Hardwicke Enterprise. “Traditionally, each team member operates a different CNC machine, moving the parts manually so that they can be measured. However, as each castor wheel is made up of around five different components and the client wanted a quick delivery, we needed a system that could operate faster and for longer periods of time.”

Automation can help solve challenges of speed and time – robots can operate faster than humans and can run for longer hours. However, automating an entire production line can take a long time to plan, set up and program before production can begin.

“We knew that introducing technology would help us deliver the contract, but we needed a system that was quick to set up, flexible and helped the team improve output,” continued Foster. “So, when The Sempre Group mentioned that it was developing a new automated system, we offered to help develop and test it.”

Delivering Quick Solution

The Sempre Group designed the automated machine tending system to work alongside Hardwicke’s super mini mill CNC machine that builds the parts. The team designed gripper fingers to handle the components, modifications to the chucks and an easy-to-use pallet system. Once designed, The Sempre Group manufactured all of the parts for use as well as installing and programming a Universal UR5E collaborative robot (cobot). The system was built in one week and installed in three hours.

The cobot picks and places parts using Sempre’s own low cost pneumatic dual gripping end effector and 3D printed gripping fingers to hold the part. The team also modified Hardwicke’s existing Rohm vices for automated actuation. The robot picks the parts from a pallet, opens the door of the CNC machine, unloads complete parts from the machine, cleans the vice, loads the next part and then closes the door. Parts are then measured using an optical coordinate measuring machine (CMM).

“The system was quick to set up, flexible and viable – it went from van to operation in three hours. The Sempre Group also ensured that the system could operate safely around the team – the robot is able to detect humans in its path and execute a safe stop, removing the need to cage the system, which would take up a lot of space in the facility. The robot ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week and delivered the output we needed, meaning the team could work on our other CNC machines to produce other components.”

“We installed Sempre Connect software to the system to very easily and quickly connect and control other systems within the process,” explained Mike G John, head of engineering at The Sempre Group. “In this case we integrated a Vertex 251 Optical CMM to inspect the components and ensure compliance. Any dimensional issues could then be flagged immediately and the machine tool program assessed for changes. This instant quality feedback allows a proactive approach to superior productivity and quality control.”

Sempre Connect is a simple software that eliminates the need for programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and integrates the inspection system with the automated process. After measuring, the software verifies the part, checking that it meets specifications, and feeds this information to the automation solution to place the part in the correct place. This PC based control software is simpler, cheaper and easier to use than an industrial PLC, which is often a costly investment for SMEs because it can take months to learn how to use and program the technology effectively.

Saving time

The automated machine tending system had a 20-component capacity on each plate, a cycle time of three minutes 45 seconds and a takt time of four minutes 45 seconds. The Hardwicke team reported that the system saved around 52 hours of operator time that it could reallocate to other projects.

“While some businesses view robots negatively, as they think that they will replace staff, this project showed the real value in technology,” continued Foster. “Robots take people away from laborious tasks and create roles that require highly skilled people. So now, we have an expert team that can work on different tasks while robots run all day, to meet demand for higher volumes.

“Our collaboration with Hardwicke proved the importance of investing in automation to unlock value – businesses can now use both staff and technology to their full potential to improve productivity,” continued John. “Now that we understand the value the system can add to the production floor, we can look to leverage the investment and ROI by developing and offering bolt-on applications. Manufacturers could use the system for applications such as post processing, including deburring or polishing, for packaging, including boxing or palletizing, for assembly or for sorting. Manufacturers can simply reprogram the system in minutes, without the costs of introducing more equipment.”

“This project was a one off for us – the small batches that we traditionally produce will not benefit from automation. However, as we start to see businesses look for more local suppliers, demand for higher volumes of parts will increase. As a result, we expect to see more high volume contracts, which we can now confidently accept without concerns about overhauling our production line. We’re confident that The Sempre Group can quickly and efficiently install the system, upscale our production and increase our flexibility to continue delivering high quality parts, no matter the batch size,” concluded Foster.

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