Adaptable Automated Machine Tending is Democratizing Manufacturing

VersaBuilt and Universal Robots show how cobots deliver flexibility and fast deployment for businesses.

The UR20 cobot. (Source: Universal Robots)

The UR20 cobot. (Source: Universal Robots)

Robotics and automation are rapidly transforming the manufacturing sector. Seeking to maximize space efficiency and ease-of-use, manufacturers are gravitating toward small-footprint, lightweight collaborative robots. Universal Robots (UR) is one company providing its family of cobots (collaborative robotic arms) for a wide range of repetitive tasks that can be safely performed alongside humans without the need for barriers.

Programming ease, suitability for collaborative staging areas, and low space requirements are among some of the most significant advantages of cobot systems compared to traditional systems, which require companies to have adept programming experience, incorporate safety fencing, and devote ample space for the robots. Another key advantage is that cobot systems allow small and mid-size businesses to make incremental investments in automation versus the major capital investments required for traditional massive multi-robot arrays.

Universal Robots Regional Segment Manager for Machine Tending Justin Griffin recently presented at an Advances in Machine Tending webinar in which he showcased the advantages of Universal Robots’ portfolio of UR3e, UR5e, UR10e, UR16e and UR20 arms supported by a selection of end-effectors, software, accessories, and applications kits offered by UR’s ecosystem.

“We are proud to say that we have over 75,000 robots currently installed making up about 34% of the cobot market share,” Griffin said, adding that UR’s market penetration is largely due to the having partnerships with 1,100 companies like VersaBuilt, a CNC machine tending solutions company.

VersaBuilt Director of Sales Brian Havey joined Griffin during the webinar and explained that his company is awaiting its first UR20—UR’s largest cobot—with a new gripper and cart designed to provide additional reach around larger machines. He expects that the UR20 will be able to tend two or three machines with one system, thereby providing more value for end customers.

UR finds that many clients have manufacturing facilities with space constraints and lack the room to incorporate large, complex guarded robotics systems. Instead clients seek smaller systems that can integrate seamlessly into existing spaces and work alongside humans safely. UR designed its portfolio of products to integrate into diverse environments offering flexibility, standardization, and efficiency.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Universal Robots is its commitment to democratizing automation. Its vision is to bring automation to businesses of all sizes, everywhere. This philosophy is supported by a strategic approach that focuses on the advantages of cobots, which it says are more user-friendly and don’t require the extensive space and barriers that traditional robots need. The absence of these barriers could potentially enable businesses, especially small and medium-sized ones, to scale more effectively.

Griffin underscored the UR approach, emphasizing the importance of robots working side-by-side with operators. This collaborative method not only ensures efficient space utilization but also enhances machine utilization, leading to increased capacity for attracting new customers and meeting production demands.

“Our over 440 certified products allow customers to get their hands on devices that have been fine-tuned and include both software and interfaces and tooling robot stands,” said Griffin.

He explained that part of the advantage of UR’s system comes down to machine utilization. Current labor shortages in manufacturing means that a portion of machines sit idle a percentage of the time. Meanwhile, machines continue to depreciate in value while they’re sitting idle, taking up space and consuming overhead budgets. With effective automation solutions, the resulting increased machine utilization means capacity for more customers or additional orders.

Cobot system setup (Source: Universal Robots)

Cobot system setup (Source: Universal Robots)

As VersaBuilt awaits the UR20, for its enhanced reach and versatility, Havey reflected on the company’s own history showcasing the transformative power of automation. VeraBuilt grew out of its sister company, Rekluse Motorsports’ need to provide flexible capacity for their growing range of parts. At the time, Rekluse had about 250 parts that they had to machine in a given month. Ten years later, having implemented VersaBuilt’s machine tending products, Recluse has over 1,000 parts to machine per month.

“The introduction of automation to this kind of captive customer of ours has had a tremendous impact on their operations, and more importantly, on their bottom line,” said Havey.

VersaBuilt, a standard automation supplier, caters to both mills and lathes, especially for high-mix CNC operations, by creating products adaptable to multiple customer parts rather than a single part, for more flexible machine tending. The company has experienced a considerable uptick in the number of parts machined monthly over the past decade in part due to unique approaches to problems like picking and palletizing. While traditional automation often pigeonholes users into specific, rigid configurations, VersaBuilt favors a more flexible, standard automation paradigm that can more easily be adapted to diverse tasks.

Havey further explained that standard automation systems grant flexibility to run a wider range of part sizes and shapes at a faster deployment rate due to being off-the-shelf with a low learning curve for implementation. The systems are also less expensive, have shorter part changeover times, require no programming, and enable the CNC shop to add their own parts to the automation system.

Conversely, while custom solutions provide optimal processing efficiency, higher unattended run times, and high volume output, they’re also expensive, take longer to deploy, require longer part changeover time, custom programming, and often require a third-party robot system integrator to add new parts to be automated.

VersaBuilt’s parts handling entails part picking, pallet loading, and multi-grip. Part picking involves a standard off-the-shelf gripper that can be servo-driven or pneumatically driven and simplifies part processing.

“Basically, you’ll have fixed fixtures in the CNC to handle these parts. For instance, a soft jaw for first operation and a soft jaw for second operation that stays resident in those jobs,” said Havey. “You might have to change grippers out from job to job, but it provides a very simple way to process parts—often these parts are processed one at a time.”

Pallet loading entails having a zero-point receiver in the CNC that’s ready to accept palletized plates where parts are fixtures on top of it. “In my view this is a machinist-friendly setup because it’s easier to program,” said Havey. “They understand they can get a the dimensional performance, but each workspace requires its own expensive vise or fixtures to accommodate the first and second parts. And you might need some number of those fixtures to accommodate long and unattended runs of processing. And then you still have a labor issue where you have to have somebody flipping the fixturing and flipping them over and getting them fixtured on to the second or the third fixture for processing.”

Then there’s multi-grip, which is a method where the same tool that holds the material in a CNC machine, the soft jaw, is also used by a robot to handle parts. This means the robot can easily switch out its tooling for different tasks. Since machinists usually design these tools to hold various parts, with some tweaks, these tools can be used for automated processes without needing continuous human monitoring.

Havey explained that VersaBuilt has a unique multi-grip system, which allows parts to be manipulated effectively, combining the benefits of both part picking and pallet loading, offering flexibility and fast job changeover.

In addition to the three parts handling types, Havey said the most important aspect of a well-functioning system is the ability to quickly and inexpensively introduce new parts.

”Basically for for less than a couple hundred dollars and in the space of a couple of hours with a machinist that’s done it a couple of times, a part can be quickly introduced to automation, and coming from VersaBuilt’s perspective, that is a great measurement of a CNC machine testing system,” said Havey.