Micron Products, a wholly owned subsidiary of Micron Solutions Inc., is a contract manufacturer in Fitchburg, Mass. that specializes in precision machining, thermoplastic injection molding, mold making and more. To reduce costs and improve quality, Micron wanted to automate the pick and place process of the delicate plastic clips it produces for a car seat manufacturer.
Micron also wanted to maintain a quality product without slowing down cycle times. Producing the clips was already partly automated, but Micron added an ABB IRB 360 FlexPicker, Keyence vision system, and Soft Robotics gripper to further roboticize the process.
Micron Products manufacturing engineer Taylor Breau says the initial needs going into the project were:
- Cut out both operators on this machine
- Avoid a significant reduction in cycle time
Breau says the cost-savings would come from the salary savings from the operators.
Micron had already automated part of the clip production. It used a robotic arm from Ranger Automation with an end of arm tooling that grabs 64 individual clips out of the mold, places them onto a table fixture that snaps together four clips, and sends them to a conveyor belt. The conveyor brings the clips to two operators who pick them off the conveyor and place into the box in the correct orientation.
To remove the two operators, Micron had integrator Advanced Automation (Portsmouth, NH) install an ABB IRB 360 FlexPicker, Keyence vision system, and Soft Robotics gripper to automate the pick and place part of the process. The vision system guides the robot and gripper to pick up the clips and put them into a special-sized box.
This system cost about $120,000, according to Breau, and the installation took one week in August 2016. Breau says clip production experienced little downtime during the installation.
This was Micron’s first time working with both ABB and Soft Robotics, both of which Breau says were recommended by the car seat manufacturer. “We were hesitant because there’s no easy way to vacuum the clips off the conveyor belt because of the way they land,” says Breau. “And damage is a no-go for our customer. Fixing the clips is a nightmare, so Soft Robotics saved us with never damaging any parts.”
Breau says the human operators would periodically damage the clips due to the way they were grabbing them.
“They’d grab a handful at once, which can lead to a piece snapping on the bottom layer inside the box,” says Breau. “If the end-user gets one that’s broken, they have to stop the whole production line – and that issue comes straight back to us. But it’s pretty much been completely eliminated as Soft Robotics is easy on the parts. It also doesn’t pick up parts that aren’t complete (if only three clips are snapped together, not four) because the vision system will notice it’s not a finished part.
Since the ABB-Soft Robotics system was installed, the clip production process has evolved from three shifts of two operators to three shifts of one operator, who simply finishes packing boxes. Nobody lost their job, Breau says, they have been shifted to other tasks. And sometimes the operator manning clip production has time to work on another product in between packing boxes.
Breau says savings on salaries alone was more than $120,000, so the ROI was less than one year. Production hasn’t increased, but that wasn’t the goal. The molding machine was already running at the maximum speed that also maintained quality. Micron also had to slightly slow down the cycle time of the molding machine so the ABB robot could keep up; note that the soft gripper did not slow down the process, according to Breau.
“We’re running this 24 hours a day, lights out, and it’s helped a ton,” Breau says. “It even runs on the weekends a good amount of time.”
Some Micron employees were initially scared about the robot replacing them altogether, but they’ve since come around. “We had to reaffirm them that someone is still needed for quality assurance and to top of the boxes,” Breau says. “They definitely like the robot now because it takes the speed factor out of there hands and makes their job easier.”
Micron has automated other parts of its manufacturing operations, but Breau says those solutions are getting outdated. “We’re looking other projects that are coming in. There’s a lot of opportunity for robotics here, and this project shows the improvements robotics can make.”