Vermont manufacturer of wooden tableware has successfully deployed a UR5e collaborative robot to handle the finish sanding of cutting boards. The new robot colleague, named ‘Sandrew’ by the staff, has delivered a 40% increase in the production throughput, which resulted in the robot paying itself back in just two months.
Andrew Pearce Bowls started looking into automation as a manual sander was promoted to a finish turner, leaving open a position that turned out to be challenging to fill. “It’s hard to recruit somebody to stand at a downdraft table and sand cutting boards for eight hours,” says Alex Drew, application engineer at Andrew Pearce Bowls. “Sanding was really becoming the choke point in our production.”
The team met with Universal Robots distributor Motion AI (former Axis New England) that showed them how the robots handle sanding tasks.
“We realized that by having a robot taking over the sanding, it just becomes another tool that does not replace any of the Old-World techniques that we use in our handwork,” says Mike Welch, production manager at Andrew Pearce Bowls.
The collaborative robots (cobots) from Universal Robots (UR) were not the only automation option Andrew Pearce Bowls considered. “We ended up with UR cobots because of the non-proprietary software and the digital and analog outputs that allowed us to add additional peripherals in the process of fixturing and tooling,” says Welch.
“And ultimately, the online teaching and learning through UR, Robotiq, and our local provider, Axis New England, gave us a lot of resources so we felt comfortable we weren’t going to be left out in the dry not knowing how to operate this.”
Andrew Pearce’s production manager has looked closely at the metrics of how his UR5e cobot is performing. “We essentially end up saving about 20% of time the sander would spend on the board handling the finish sanding,” he explains. “It’s not replacing them, it’s just cutting down the amount of time that they’re taking getting it from a rough to a finished product, which translates to about 40% increase in throughput.”
Looking at the company’s all-in costs of the robot and implementation, Welch estimates that the return on investment (ROI) on the robot is about two months. “The UR robot has become very integral in our business plan this year,” he says. “We grew by over 20%, so we are hoping to continue that growth next year, and having the UR application is going to help us achieve that.”
The UR5e is equipped with Robotiq’s UR+ certified AirPick gripper and Sanding Kit. Included in the kit are air control accessories, orbital tool, sanding media, software controlling the UR cobot’s force/torque sensor, and a mounting bracket, all controlled through a “URCap”; a software handshake between peripherals and the UR cobot arm, accessible directly through the cobot’s own teach pendant.
The software allows the user to ‘teach’ the robot its sanding pattern. Andrew Pearce’s application engineer readily admits he had no robotics experience before diving into this project. “But any chance I get to learn something is always very exciting. Programming and interfacing with the robot was surprisingly simple and easy to understand,” says Drew.
Mike Welch, Production manager at Andrew Pearce Bowls
We grew by over 20%, so we are hoping to continue that growth next year, and having the UR application is going to help us achieve that.
The team at Andrew Pearce built the fixturing that enables the UR5 to change its own sandpaper in-house. The cell also includes a V-shaped flipping jig that allows the cobot to flip the board over 45 degrees so it can pick it up and sand the bottom side without any manual intervention. “It can literally move through complete cutting boards, 10-15 at a time, depending on how many we can fit on the infeed and outfeed side,” says Andrew Pearce’s application engineer, emphasizing how change-overs are easy to handle as well. “We do anything from cutting boards that are 17x17 inches, all the way down to small ornaments. Changing from one product to the next is super simple. The program stops, you put whatever you need to work on in the infeed table, and then you just open a new program and run it.”
Soon, finishing sanding will not be the only task, ‘Sandrew’ – the name the UR5e has been given by the staff - can add to his resume. The team at Alex Pearce Bowls has added another UR+-certified product to the UR5 cobot; the Flexx Reference from Flexxbotics, a software/hardware solution featuring a locking mechanism with a relative offset that eliminates the need to update the UR cobot’s waypoints and moves every time the cobot or the work cell shifts. “With Flexx Reference, we’ll be able to put the robot on a mobile base and move the robot over to load and unload our laser marking machines. Maybe we’ll also add a UR10e to do CNC machine tending at some point,” says Welch. “We see so many new possibilities in the shop and future openings down the road that would allow for more automation now.”
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