Machine tending is one of those tasks that's ideally suited to collaborative robot-powered automation. Dull, often dirty and sometimes dangerous, it's no surprise that over recent years machine tending has emerged as one of the most popular applications for cobots. And with manufacturers facing unique challenges --from sudden...


Machine tending is one of those tasks that's ideally suited to collaborative robot-powered automation. Dull, often dirty and sometimes dangerous, it's no surprise that over recent years machine tending has emerged as one of the most popular applications for cobots.

And with manufacturers facing unique challenges --from sudden changes to production lines to the introduction of social distancing requirements-- due to COVID-19, cobot's mobility and ease-of-use make them even more attractive today than during normal circumstances. There are many tasks in a production environment that fall into the category of “machine tending” – where a piece of equipment requires worker intervention in order to complete a task.

In general, any task that falls into that description is a candidate for automation with a cobot, if for no other reason than doing so goes a long way in improving productivity by reducing human idle time.

There’s more to it though.

For example, the high capital cost of CNC machines makes it imperative that the machines are kept loaded and running as much as possible. Cobots can perform all or parts of the typical CNC tool process tending steps: placing material in the machine, closing the door, activating the machine, opening the door when the machining is complete, and removing the finished machined part.

Automating machine tending tasks with cobots also provides important benefits to workers. Cobots' built-in safety systems eliminate the need for caging after risk assessment. Furthermore, by removing humans from moving machine parts and pinch points, cobots lower the risk of accidental and repetitive injuries. And managing cobots, rather than tending CNC, injection molding, and press brake machines, for example, increases worker satisfaction and value.

Cobots only need to be trained once per product, process, and machine, which means higher throughput and consistent product quality. In turn, higher throughput results in lower finished goods costs.

Watch UR cobots complete machine tending tasks at Toolcraft Inc., Nichrominox, and Dynamic Group.

UR+ Application Kits for Machine Tending

If you're looking for an out-of-the-box solution without all the programming complexity and cost associated with traditional machine tending automation, check out VersaBuilt's mobile CNC Mill Application Kit. The system's CNC Application Program enables end-users to get up and running simply by entering part configuration data such as part width, length, and height –eliminating the need for complex custom programming. And its MultiGrip work holding, a combination of gripper, vice, and vice jaw system, makes integrating new parts super quick and easy.

“The main thing that's attractive to us about UR cobots is that they don't require an integrator to set up and use on an ongoing basis. They are designed to be used by end-users,” says Al Youngwerth, founder and CEO at VersaBuilt. Additionally, when a traditional industrial robot has a problem, experts have to be flown in, adding further downtime and cost to an existing problem, but this isn't the case with UR cobots,” adds Youngwerth.

“The cobot service model is significantly better than the service model for traditional industrial robots which tend to be targeted at extremely high-value, custom applications, but are not very well suited to typical end-user applications. Robots that are easy to service, like UR's robots, are a much better solution for high mix-manufacturing environments.”

Watch how ActiNav Autonomous Motion Module (AMM) synchronously handles vision processing, collision-free motion planning, and autonomous real-time robot control. ActiNav ensures both accurate part placement and higher machine uptime and delivers autonomous tending capabilities across a host of machine types from milling, grinding, and CNC machines through welding, inspection, and test stations.

30 Micron Repeatability Enables Precision Machining

As our customers have found, the combination of increased productivity and worker value along with cobot flexibility and rapid ROI makes a compelling case for the adoption of cobots across a wide variety of machine tending tasks. For example, the 30-micron repeatability and built-in force/torque sensing in Universal Robots’ e-Series cobots proved an important factor in Toolcraft Inc.'s decision to deploy a UR5e on a challenging, three-operation precision CNC machine tending task.

The results were remarkable: “We went from producing 255 parts a week to 370 parts per week. Along with that, we’re able to finish our year’s production seven weeks sooner, thus freeing up that machine to produce parts on other jobs,” said Toolcraft’s director of operations, Steve Wittenberg.

There is no company too small (and no machine tending task too specialized) to benefit from cobot technology. For example, at Nichrominox, a family-owned manufacturer in Lyon, France, UR5 cobots tend to fold and CNC machines involved in the manufacture of dental equipment. The implementation resulted in an “instant” 10% gain in productivity, said Éric Lefrancq-Lumiere, Nichrominox's General Manager.

Meanwhile, U.S.-based Dynamic Group turned to UR10 cobots to tackle problems with product consistency around its injection molding machine. The company's high mix/low volume production processes proved an excellent fit for the UR10 and ROI was achieved in less than two months.

With the unique communications requirements of injection molding machines (IMMs) in mind, Universal Robots recently released the Injection Molding Machine Interface (IMMI) to ensure fast and easy communication between our e-Series cobots and IMMs. IMMI supports machines with EUROMAP 67 and SPI AN-146 communication interfaces.

Mounting its UR cobot on a mobile base adds to the speed and flexibility of automation deployments throughout Dynamic Group's manufacturing facility.Nichrominox chose a UR5 for machine tending tasks in dental equipment manufacturing.VersaBuilt's CNC Milling Kit can be set up by end-users with no programming experience.The parts produced in Toolcraft’s CNC machining cycle tended by the UR5e is a multi-threaded medical device component, requiring high precision, three-step handling inside the CNC.

VersaBuilt's Robot2CNC Communication Kit which is designed to enable Universal Robots to easily execute any machining program stored on a Haas CNC, while maintaining all CNC safety and execute features is available separately through the UR+ ecosystem.

Universal Robots' ActiNav Kit is a powerful machine tending solution that doesn't require any programming experience –an important feature for manufacturers looking to automate quickly and cheaply in a world with COVID-19. Specially designed to provide autonomous bin-picking for machine tending applications, ActiNav is ready to use out-of-the-box. Setup is intuitive, using a mix of hand-guiding and a simple six-step wizard that's fully integrated with the UR teach pendant.

ActiNav and VersaBuilt are currently only available in the Americas, but these and other UR+ Application Kit solutions for machine tending will be available in other regions soon.
Are you ready to automate your machine tending tasks with Universal Robots? Talk to one of our experts

Jim Lawton

Experienced in both start-up and Fortune 500 environments, Jim’s career has focused on building organizations that give manufacturers new and effective ways to capitalize on the intersection of technology and business performance. From early days in e-commerce market and supply chain optimization to supplier risk management, Jim has been on the leading edge of innovation that changes what world-class manufacturing looks like. Since 2013, Jim has focused on the opportunity for manufacturers to harness advanced automation and collaborative robots to transform their operations and how the world thinks about work. He joined Universal Robots in 2018 and today leads the product and applications management of the company’s advanced collaborative robots to manufacturers and distributors all over the world. Jim holds a BS in Electrical Engineering from Tufts University, an MS in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT and an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, where he was an inaugural Fellow in the MIT Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) program.

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