Lou Kren Lou Kren
Senior Editor

Assessing Cobot & Robot Solutions for End-of-Line Stamping Automation

October 27, 2023

A walk through FABTECH 2023 revealed the extent to which collaborative robots (cobots) have penetrated metal forming and fabricating environments. Booth after booth showcased cobot applications from machine tending to welding (see the article on safeguarding automated welding operations. Also, consider cobots for end-of-line automation for metal stamping, courtesy of advancements that deliver longer reach, higher load capacity, simplified programming, improved ruggedness and tailored end-of-arm tooling (EOAT).

Here, MetalForming explores end-of-line automation via cobots and robots, and what these advancements mean, with Kristian Hulgard, general manager for the Americas at OnRobot, a provider of cobot automation systems.

Comparing Cobots and Robots

Cobot-Electric-Gripper-EOAT-OnRobot“We see press end-of-line applications for cobots and robots mostly including packaging and palletizing,” Hulgard says. The choice between cobots and industrial robots in these applications chiefly depends on line speeds and part size and weight, with manufacturers and automation integrators preferably huddling to assess needs and develop the appropriate solutions. Whereas the perceived ruggedness of cobots has made deployment in sometimes-hostile press-line environments an iffy proposition, this no longer should be of concern.

“So many cobots are available these days, with different specs and with various IP (ingress protection) ratings,” Hulgard explains. “I haven’t seen a cobot unable to be installed due to the service environment save for heavy nuclear-radiation or underwater applications. Whether dust or oils or other environmental challenges in a stamping environment, manufacturers can find a cobot or an industrial robot to fit. In some cases, a jacket can be placed over a cobot and robot arm to provide additional protection.”

Cobot offerings, like those of industrial robots, provide something for just about every application, “but cobots have an ease-of-use, plug-and-play concept going for them,” says Hulgard. “This comes at the expense of speed and payload. For an application requiring extremely high speeds or heavy payloads, cobots may not be the right choice, but in many cases cobots offer enough speed and muscle—cobot payloads to 65 lb. now are available. And, cobots can operate within smaller footprints than robots, and enable humans to work alongside.

“Some cobot manufacturers specialize in more speed and lower payloads, and some in higher payloads and lower speeds,” he continues. “But usually, you can’t have it all. No cobot or robot combines plug-and-play ease of use, safety, high speeds and high payloads. With so many automation-system manufacturers and numerous variables, something will fit a metal former’s needs.”

Consult With Automation Providers and Integrators

Makers of cobots and industrial robots continue developing their products to meet market demands, Hulgard reports, with industrial-robot manufacturers delivering more ease-of-use software than in the past. In addition, cobots and robots can play nicely with other press-line equipment to provide a synchronized production operation. 

“Within 10 or 20 yr.,” he offers, “cobots and robots may not differ in capabilities and likely will become the same products.”

In the meantime, Hulgard recommends consulting with automation suppliers and integrators—it’s often free of charge—on the best solution for an application.

“Invite them out to the facility and ask for help in identifying certain processes where such automation can help,” he says. “Ask them, ‘Hey, I only have $75,000 to spend, so can we look for simple processes to start with?’ It’s best to take this route instead of self-assessing—correct assessments require expertise and experience. Why not use the available expertise?”

Electric EOAT a Good Bet?

EOAT provides an ideal means to enhance the value and productivity surrounding cobot and robot press-line applications, according to Hulgard, who discusses trends in this technology.

“We see a move from highly customized one-off-designed EOAT toward more-standardized electric, one-size-fits-all tooling,” he says. “Traditionally, a manufacturer would purchase a pneumatic gripper that could grip one part, one shape and one size, and it did that very well. However, what if a metal former wants to use the robot or cobot to move different sizes and shapes of materials. An electric gripper, via a software setting for finger reach and manipulation, easily can grip differently sized and shaped parts.”

In addition, the flexibility of electric EOAT allows redeployment of cobots for other tasks and enables productivity gains and cost savings when picking differing parts in high-mix, low-volume production, according to Hulgard.

Hulgard’s two cents: “Electric and software-driven EOAT is the way to go, and represents the future of tooling.”

Data gathering and analysis offers another plus of such technology, according to Hulgard. “Electric tooling allows users to monitor and measure productivity and performance of the EOAT as a whole and of the grippers. Did I grip the part correctly? Do I have a grip now? Together with the monitoring software, a metal former can determine if the automation is running correctly. Traditionally, that hasn’t been possible with pneumatic EOAT.”

Don’t Wait

Workforce realities also drive the use of robots and robots in press end-of-line and other shop-floor operations, concludes Hulgard.

“Even if a metal former can’t make a case for it now, cobot and robot end-of-line automation will pay off at some point when employees no longer want to take on dull, repetitive and potentially dangerous part-handling tasks,” he says. “The metal former then will have to slow production to address that instead of being proactive and adding that automation now. Thankfully, there’s a trend toward small and medium-sized companies employing such automation, but a huge amount still haven’t automated. Now is the time for metal formers to invest in end-of-line automation.” MF

Industry-Related Terms: Case, Forming, Grippers, Point
View Glossary of Metalforming Terms


See also: OnRobot US, Inc.

Technologies: Pressroom Automation


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