An increasingly competitive environment in the automotive industry has prompted a high demand from top manufacturers to come up with the most cost-efficient engineering processes. According to SHAFI, Inc., a Michigan-based software solutions supplier specializing in 2D/3D vision guidance and vision inspection systems, one of their most common inquiries is for 3D vision-guided robotic (VGR) solutions to automate material handling applications. One request, from a major Michigan automotive manufacturer, asked SHAFI to design new “AutoRacking” solutions – replacing the manual handling of heavy automotive parts, such as truck beds or hood inners, with robotic handling.
“Normally these robotic solutions are justified with savings from reduced labor costs, but there are additional benefits, such as faster production times due to removal of safety hazards,” says Adil Shafi, SHAFI's President and Founder. “Additionally, VGR solutions prevent users from having to retool racks when product geometries change for new product launches because the robots can be reprogrammed at a fraction of the time and cost it takes to build a new production line.”
The AutoRacking Solution
The AutoRacking system required a 3D solution capable of accommodating a variety of car parts with multiple contours, concave surfaces and burred edges. SHAFI designed a system that would be able to detect empty racks or racks of mismatched product models, as well as the depth of each part within the rack. The solution also allowed for compensation of parts hanging at different angles, or, oscillating in the air due to flexible rack design, which does not allow parts to be damaged by touching the rack’s floor during transportation.
The core of the solution relied on SHAFI’s advanced software programming combined with hardware from COGNEX, a supplier of machine vision systems. The total solution included a redundant third camera for increased reliability, and easy wizards to calibrate the robots' vision.
In addition to the vision-guiding portion of the design, SHAFI needed to come up with the proper end-of-arm-tooling (EOAT). Often overlooked, this small but crucial element accounts for the “hand” of the robot, which uses vacuum to lift and transport the moving part. “A robot is only as effective as its end-of-arm tooling,” said Shafi. “This AutoRacking solution, in particular, needed to rely on flexible tooling because the robot needs to adapt to constant changes in size, which occur each time the vehicle model or car part changes.”
Shafi knew that if the arm of the robot “missed” its grip on an object it would cause the entire system to shutdown, ceasing production while the tooling is repaired. In an even worse case scenario, the wrong tooling could cause the robot to drop the object, putting employees on the plant floor in imminent physical danger.
Adding Vacuum Technology
In order to design the appropriate EOAT portion of his robotic solution, SHAFI turned to Mike Brotz, territory manager at PIAB, a global manufacturer of industrial vacuum products. A major factor in choosing PIAB was the durability of its suction cups. “PIAB’s DURAFLEX suction cups are designed to grip uneven or oddly-shaped surfaces, ensuring safe and stable lifting,” said Shafi. “They are particularly good for handling non-porous automotive parts.”
SHAFI’s AutoRacking solution used six PIAB suction cups per robot and also included a PIAB Modular Automated Tooling unit attached to a multi-stage ejector vacuum pump that was mounted to a VacTrap check valve. The VacTrap “traps” vacuum pressure for an indefinite period of time, preventing the handled part from dropping in the event of system interruption.
The VacTrap features PIAB’s COAX®, a patented multi-ejector technology, which integrates the internal components of a multi-stage vacuum pump into a vacuum cartridge. The COAX technology results in a smaller, more efficient, more reliable and highly flexible technology that allows the design of a modular system.
A Perfect Partnership
Shafi and his team are especially grateful to have PIAB’s vacuum technology as a key part of the new AutoRacking solution. “It’s quite a challenge coming up with solutions for handling so many shapes and sizes,” concludes Shafi. “Having the flexibility of PIAB’s modular automated tooling as part of our solutions has made it much easier for us to design and advise systems integrators on AutoRacking solutions that rise to the challenge and handle the toughest applications.”
“The AutoRacking solution has reliably produced four million parts. As automotive manufacturers re-think their lines and processes, there are two recurring objectives: to reduce costs and increase flexibility,” said Shafi. Thanks to the advanced SHAFI/PIAB solution, companies who currently use robots, and those who are considering using them, now have an opportunity to accomplish both of these objectives.PIAB North America