By Tim Heston
Metal fabrication automation has come a long way in recent decades. Sheet storage towers send parts to laser cutting or punching. Then you have part offloading automation,
which can take parts out of the nest and stack them.
This technology can make sense for some applications, depending on the nest, production schedule,
and available labor. On some punch presses, parts
also can be sent down a chute for retrieval.
And therein lies the challenge—parts sent “for retrieval.” Despite advances in cutting, bending, and
welding automation, people still move parts from
one fabrication process to the next with fork trucks,
carts, and other manual methods. You do find creative uses of conveyors in some cases. But for the
most part, the act of moving jobs between operations remains almost entirely manual.
A material handling application at Hirotec America, through a partnership with self-driving vehicle
supplier OTTO™ Motors, mounted with a dual-arm
Motoman robot from Yaskawa America, shows how
this situation might change.
Hirotec America provides weld assembly equipment for OEMs including GM, Fiat Chrysler, Ford,
Toyota, and BMW. The division provides more than
$200 million of Hirotec’s $1.6 billion worldwide sales.
The company has a long history of continuous
improvement, and to that end it has scrutinized
many of its processes, including a black oxide
“We now have a mobile robot that can run from
the machine shop to the black oxide tanks,” Krus
said. “The robot brings the parts [in a basket] down
to the workstation, loads the parts, runs it through
the [black oxide] system, and then brings the parts
to the next step in the process, without a human
having to run back and forth.”
The robot does not move when the vehicle is in
motion. But when the vehicle is stationary, the ro-
bot can move, and sensors mounted on the system
ensure that if anyone gets within 3 feet of the robot
arm, the robot shuts down.
The program operates by a set routine, and the
robot operates with machine vision so that it can
locate elements in its surroundings, including the
basket of parts it needs to retrieve as well as the
various stages of the black oxide dipping process.
An operator in the machine shop loads a basket
with parts. The mobile robot then goes to the basket, picks it up and transfers it to the black oxide,
where it dips the basket, washes the parts, then
runs them through a salt bath and dries them. The
robot is programmed to perform dipping motions
so that it performs each step properly.
The self-driving vehicle came from OTTO Motors,
a division of Clearpath Robotics based in Kitchener,
Ont. The company differentiates the terms
self-driving vehicle, or SDV, and automated guided vehicle.
AGVs are, as their name suggests, physically guided
in some way, such as with magnetic tape, beacons,
bar codes, or by some other mechanism. They travel
on fixed paths in a controlled space.
SDVs sense the world around them, using laser-based or similar technology, and use algorithms
to navigate their own way through facilities. They
adapt, learn, and, ideally, become more efficient
and accurate over time. They also don’t require
tapes, beacons, or other physical infrastructure to
operate in a factory.
OTTO’s SDV in use at Hirotec can carry up to 3,400
pounds. “It uses the same foundational technology that’s used in the Google driverless car,” said
Meghan Hennessey, marketing communications
manager at OTTO Motors. Specifically, it uses sensors called LIDAR, or light detection and ranging.
The technology works like sonar, with waves bouncing off objects to provide an image; but instead of
sound, LIDAR uses light.
The potential of self-driving vehicles in metal fabrication
Oxide coating application proves SDVs’ potential