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New England Union Company (NEU) is a family-owned foundry and machine shop that makes brass threaded pipe fittings for the plumbing and shipping industries. NEU replaced outdated equipment with modern CNC machines, but manufacturing staffing remains a challenge in Rhode Island.
To address labor shortages and longer cycle times, the company deployed a UR10e cobot and ActiNav bin picking system from Universal Robots (UR) to run untended all night long. With ActiNav, NEU can increase output with the same number of employees.
Updating the shop from older lathes to modern CNC machines improved product quality, but also increased cycle times. This impacted deliveries and didn’t effectively use valuable machinists. NEU needed to increase output without adding manned shifts, and wanted to automate less-specialized tasks so that employees could be moved to higher-value roles such as setting up CNC machines and spending more time on inspection and quality.
NEU’s first collaborative robot project used a UR10e cobot and its built-in palletizing function to pick parts from an organized tray to feed a gantry system for the CNC machine that performs threading, drilling, and other operations. The UR10e cobot arm features can lift up to 27.6 lb (12.5 kg) with a maximum reach of 51.1 inches (1300 mm).
It took an employee about an hour to load the ordered grid on the tray, and the cobot could run for about eight hours unmanned. But the company needed a system that could run all night without an operator. NEU vice president Brent Petit explored vibratory systems, but they couldn’t meet NEU’s repeatability requirements. That’s when he was introduced to ActiNav.
“The advantages of the ActiNav system is that we can just bring a bin right over to the machine, set it up, and it will start picking right from the bin,” said Petit. “We don’t need to have an employee standing there, picking up the parts and placing them into that pallet system that we were doing beforehand.”
UR won a 2021 RBR50 Robotics Innovation Award for its ActiNav system. The “plug-and-produce” UR+ application kit makes it easier to deploy cobots for common applications. ActiNav requires a UR5e or UR10e cobot, an end effector of the user’s choice, and an application-specific frame or fixture. The kit includes the ActiNav software and autonomous motion module controller, the URCap user interface software, along with a choice of 3D sensors. The ActiNav system can handle vision processing, collision-free motion planning, and autonomous real-time robot control.
Autonomous bin picking is a common robotics application, but it is rarely, if ever, referred to as “easy to use.” Deploying autonomous bin picking systems usually requires integration and programming efforts customers can’t do themselves. ActiNav changed that as it doesn’t require programming expertise to deploy. ActiNav uses a teach-by-demonstration approach via a wizard-guided setup process on the cobot’s teach pendant. UR claims the system can be deployed in less than two hours.
During day shifts, employees can quickly refill the bin as needed, then return to other tasks. At the end of the day, workers simply bring a full bin to the ActiNav system, check the standard, set it to run, and leave for the night. The bin holds enough parts to keep the robot and CNC machine running unmanned all night long, and employees return in the morning to bins of finished products. They inspect the last part off the machine and take the finished bin to inventory, refill the raw parts bin, and let the robot keep running.
The ActiNav system first performs a 3D scan of the bin then the UR-10e cobot, using a Robotiq Hand-E gripper, picks a raw part and places it onto a regrip fixture. The UR robot activates the fixture to vibrate the part so it’s perfectly lined up to load into the gantry system that is the staging system for the CNC machine. At a signal from the machine, the robot picks a finished part from the gantry system, dunks it in water to rinse off the coolant, and drops the part into a finish pan. Then the robot returns to the regrip fixture to pick the correctly oriented raw part and places it onto the gantry system to go into the CNC machine before starting the cycle again.
NEU is currently running 10 different parts on the ActiNav system, with the goal of running more than 30 different parts. ActiNav will run 24 hours a day, five days a week, allowing NEU to increase output to meet demand, with the same number of employees.
“The ActiNav system has a big bin with enough parts that fit in that bin where we don’t have to worry about it stopping,” said Andrew Lieffers, operations manager, NEU. “It can run all through the night. We come back to finished parts, and it’s a beautiful thing.”