Cobots Handle Autonomous Bin-Picking

Allied Moulded Products Inc.

In short

Allied Moulded is a full-service molding operation manufacturing non-metallic electrical boxes and enclosures. Facing significant challenges due to labor shortages, the Ohio-based company chose Universal Robots’ new ActiNav system to automate an important bin-picking application. The deployment enabled Allied Moulded to reduce overtime expenses, move existing workers to more ergonomic tasks and improve consistency in the production process.

Like many firms operating in Ohio's manufacturing sector, Allied has faced challenges filling open positions due to difficult labor market conditions. At the same time, the company wanted to improve worker safety by eliminating repetitive and ergonomically unfriendly bin-picking tasks. Quality improvement was also a motivating factor in the decision to explore automation, explains manufacturing support department manager, Tom Carlisle: “When looking for automation you look for repetitiveness. You have better control over your quality if you have more consistency with loading and unloading machines.”

Using manual labor on bin-picking applications produces inconsistent results, adds manufacturing engineer technician, Nate Gilbert: “One of the biggest challenges with manual labor is they get tired and towards the end of the day, production would go down; whereas with a robot, you can always count on a consistent output.”

The challenge

The COVID-19 pandemic added another layer of concern regarding the company’s manual labor force. “We could risk that dedicated staff at any moment would not be here for reasons beyond their control,” says Carlisle. “So we needed a way to keep those processes running.”

When Allied first researched bin-picking automation, the technology “just wasn't where we needed it to be”, says Gilbert: “The guarding was too intrusive, and that was going to make it difficult when we needed to have an operator in that area. Floor space here at Allied is pretty limited already, and the thought of having to put up more guarding to accommodate a robot was one of the things that held us back initially; but with collaborative robots being safe around employees, we felt that was a great way to go.”

Allied Moulded Products Inc.

Industry Plastic and Polymers
Country United States
Number of Employees 100-500
Cobots used UR10
Watch how the UR10e cobot handles autonomous bin picking, long considered "the holy grail of robotics"

The solution

Allied Moulded's interest in collaborative robots – or cobots – was sparked following a trip to a nearby factory that had successfully deployed cobots from Universal Robots (UR).

Allied then saw UR at a trade show which eventually led to the deployment of UR’s award-winning autonomous bin-picking kit – a flexible, easy to use, automated bin-picking solution that synchronously handles vision processing, collision-free motion planning, and autonomous real-time robot control.

“ActiNav was the first system we were confident we could get in the space available without creating a bunch of extra obstacles. Just the simplicity of it picking parts out of the bin and onto the conveyor is what we were really looking for, and ActiNav seemed to meet that demand,” says Gilbert, noting that ActiNav constitutes a major improvement to the vibratory feeders that are often used for part positioning.

Easy programming and deployment

Easy programming and deployment

While Allied Moulded had experience with traditional automation, deploying a cobot was “a brand new experience,” says maintenance group lead, Nathan Wells: “It was really exciting to see something that didn’t need to be caged in, and that I could walk around while it was doing its job. When it came to programming, this was probably one of the easiest robots that I’ve ever had to program. You don’t really have to have any specific numbers to put in, or anything like that; you just have to move it into place, push a few buttons and there you go, there’s the program.”

Data feeding and bin teaching process

Data feeding and bin teaching process

Feeding ActiNav the data for part recognition is an equally painless process, says Wells: “We used a CAD file of the product, loaded it into the ActiNav and it took that and used it to register parts out of the bin. It was very easy to load in. You just put it on a USB and plug it into the controller.”

Meanwhile, teaching the bin was also very straightforward: “We just touch the robot to each part of the bin. You do a few spots of that, and ActiNav learns the bin itself. I would say after the first day of setup, it took maybe a shift to learn how to actually do the programming, and after that, we were good on our own.”

Just the simplicity of it, picking parts out of the bin and onto the conveyor is what we were really looking for.

Nate Gilbert, Manufacturing engineer technician, Allied Moulded Products Inc.

The bin-picking cycle

The process begins with stock handlers unloading a full crate of parts into a dumpster. Once activated, the dumpster tilts to dump its parts into the ActiNav bin. ActiNav picks up one parts – in this case, an extruded fiberglass electric junction box housing – and places it in proper orientation onto a narrow, railed conveyor.

Correct placement is crucial explains Carlisle: “The part has to be placed in a particular order on the machine because of the secondary operations that the machine performs. If the part is placed incorrectly, you’d have to reject that, so you’ve lost all the labor and materials of that part” The conveyor brings the parts to a small, caged work cell that has a rotary table with multiple stations. At each station, there is a fabrication element that is applied to the cup and eventually there is an out-conveyor that dumps finished parts into a large bin. Along the way, Carlisle notes, ActiNav has to make some decisions autonomously: which part to pick, how to place it in the correct orientation and how to identify incorrect parts, place them aside and continue with its main task.

If the bin is kept full, ActiNav can go all day without operator intervention, says Gilbert: “I’ve been pretty impressed with the ability of the robot to pick our parts out of the bin, no matter the orientation, and place them on the machine correctly. A task like that is usually pretty hard for a robot to be set up to do. We’re pretty confident in an operator doing it; but to have the robot do it and not have to use direct labor in that situation has been a big benefit.”

Fence-free automation enables human-robot collaboration

Fence-free automation enables human-robot collaboration

Traditional automation requires mats, fences and enclosures to protect workers from potential injury, but this can lead to cages “the size of an office” being required to automate some tasks, notes Carlisle, whereas cobots are designed to operate in close proximity to people: “This lets you have flexibility of where you’re going to place the robot [and] lets you interact with it: if there’s difficulty and you need to go and clear an error, there’s not a large procedure that you have to go through to get access. And it makes it more acceptable to individuals on the floor because it doesn’t seem inaccessible to them; it’s right there in the open.”

The tortoise and the hare

The tortoise and the hare

ActiNav doesn't take any lunches, cigarette or bathroom breaks and it always shows up for work, Carlisle notes: “It's like the tortoise and the hare. ActiNav is consistent. It’s always there, putting the part on. A human operator can be faster, but their consistency can be affected by the need to take breaks. At the end of the day, the total amount of product should be the same, if not better, with ActiNav than a human operator; but without the fatigue and manual dexterity of moving all the time.” Deploying ActiNav has allowed operators at Allied Moulded to upskill, becoming trainers and mentors on the system and contributing design ideas for future automation projects. “As we bring in automation to do a lot of the mundane and unsafe tasks, and to be safer, our operators are the biggest asset that we have and they make the best trainers for your next generation of employees,” says Carlisle.

Enables accuracy picks in deep bins

Enables accuracy picks in deep bins

"ActiNav can pick straight out of a bin, and it doesn’t matter where the parts are oriented,” says Nate Wells, maintenance group lead at Allied Moulded. ActiNav's high-resolution sensor and CAD matching enable high accuracy picks even in cluttered, deep bins. The ActiNav Kit's Autonomous Motion Module selects a robot pose that ensures the part is placed in the same way into a fixture each time, delivering accurate pick and part-oriented placement

Runs for the whole shift

Runs for the whole shift

“ActiNav runs pretty much for the whole shifts that we have parts available for it to run,” says Tom Carlisle, manager of the manufacturing support department at Allied Moulded. “Let’s say you have a 10,000-part order, it would run for that time frame.”

Intuitive programming

Intuitive programming

Programming ActiNav is intuitive and easy thanks to full integration with the UR teach pendant. Making adjustments “took all of ten minutes” says Nate Wells, maintenance group lead at Allied Moulded. “That’s by far the easiest programming I’ve ever done.” ActiNav took Gold in the Industrial Automation category at the 2020 LEAP Awards. LEAP (Leadership in Engineering Achievement Program) Awards celebrate the most innovative and forward-thinking products serving the design engineering space.

Automation challenges solved:

  • Replaced repetitive bin-picking tasks using safe and collaborative automation
  • Deployed in a tight space
  • Close human-robot collaboration

Key value drivers:

  • Improved bin-picking consistency
  • Employees freed up for more interesting tasks
  • Small footprint
  • Increased flexibility in worker deployment
  • Collaborative and safe
  • Easy to program

Tasks solved by collaborative robots

  • UR cobot autonomously handles bin-picking tasks from deep bins

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