Cobot Trimmer for Plastic Thermoforming Cuts Cost and Risk

Kal Plastics

In Short

As the first known plastics thermoformer to use a collaborative robot for trimming, Kal Plastics is blazing a trail for others. The Los Angeles-based contract manufacturer deployed the Universal Robots UR10e trimming cobot for a fraction of the cost and lead time of a CNC machine, cutting trimming time nearly in half and reducing late shipments to under one percent—all while improving employee safety and growth opportunities.

The Business Transformation

California is a tough state for manufacturing, with high costs of labor, occupancy, and energy, as well as a challenging regulatory environment for workers’ compensation. Along with those challenges, Kal Plastics president and CEO Juliet Oehler Goff is also dealing with labor issues that are common across the country: workers who are less interested in manufacturing jobs. Goff says, “We’re always looking for ways to work safer, work smarter, work faster.” When Kal Plastics needed to replace a CNC machine that was nearing the end of its useful life, Goff was presented with an ideal opportunity.

“I did my homework and found that Universal Robots is the global leader in the collaborative robot space,” Goff says. “They came out and gave us a demonstration, and when I looked at the numbers, they were really attractive. I was looking at getting another five-axis CNC router, and at the time it would have been a quarter-of-a-million-dollar investment and I would have waited 12 months to take delivery. When I met with UR, I was quoted two weeks to get the equipment, and the entry point was a quarter or a fifth of the cost.”

Kal Plastics

Industry Plastic and polymers
Country USA
Number of Employees 17
Cobot used UR10e

It would be foolish for other thermoformers not to consider adding cobots to their operation. They’d really be missing out on a smart business decision

Juliet Oehler Goff, CEO, KAL Plastics
See how Kal Plastics proved cobot’s value in finish trimming for plastics thermoforming.

Cobot reduces overtime and late shipments

The efficiency of the cobot-based trimming work cell has already paid off. “The robot has basically taken over all of the overflow that we had to do by hand,” explains consultant Dan Sproles. “In the past, we always had to juggle back and forth on the CNCs just to make delivery dates. We introduced the cobot: now there’s no more overtime and we can ship on-time. I would say late shipments have dropped to less than one percent.”

See how Kal Plastics addresses labor challenges while boosting productivity with a cobot trimmer.
How They Did It

How They Did It

With no robotics experience in-house, Goff presented an opportunity to operator Jos Luis to learn how to program and manage the cobot. Luis quickly gained confidence and skills with a combination of free online UR Academy classes as well as hands-on UR training.

Goff is thrilled to have a way to retain and advance her valued employees. “It gets your workforce excited because it’s different, it’s cool, it’s unique,” she says. “When you get someone that’s hungry, you want to find a way to satisfy their hunger and keep them interested and motivated.” She adds, “It’s been a treat to watch José grow in this role and elevate himself.”

Gantry-mounted cobot uses low-cost, standard routers to handle complex trims

Gantry-mounted cobot uses low-cost, standard routers to handle complex trims

The initial task for the cobot is a complex trim of a four-cavity mold, in which one sheet of plastic is formed into four parts. The parts are rough cut to separate them, then two parts at a time can be mounted on the fixture. Two routers are mounted on the robot arm—one with a standard router bit and one with a larger saw blade, for both primary and secondary cuts in the same process. Balancing the two heavy routers as they rotated around the part presented early challenges that were solved by mounting the robot arm overhead on a gantry to reduce pressure on the robot joints and improve accuracy. As an added benefit, the routers are low-cost and available off-the-shelf at any hardware store, so there is no expensive downtime due to tooling issues.

If you’re a thermoformer that’s been in business for 50 years or five months, if I look at the cobot, it’s a perfect fit—because I can’t afford a new CNC, but I can afford this. And I can afford someone that’s going to basically take a tablet and program it. So your bang for your buck—it’s the robot

Dan Sproles, consultant for KAL Plastics
Flexible, easy-to-program cobot is a “cell manufacturing dream”

Flexible, easy-to-program cobot is a “cell manufacturing dream”

The ability to install the cobot into the same work cell alongside the thermoformer inspired Sproles to describe it as a “cell manufacturing dream.” Parts come straight from the mold, to rough cut, to finish trimming without needing to be moved and stacked up waiting for different processes throughout the facility. That helps cut production time and reduces the chance of parts being damaged or workers being injured. The cobot takes nearly half the time of hand-trimming and provides greater accuracy and consistency.

Unlike a CNC, which requires a large, dedicated space, permanent installation, and a three-phase, 480V power source, the gantry-mounted UR10e cobot and fixture table can be moved anywhere in the plant as needed, as long as there is a standard 110V power outlet.

Automation challenges solved:

  • Flexible, safe cobot can be deployed directly in thermoforming work cell
  • Mounting two standard, commercial routers reduces cost and downtime risks of specialty tooling
  • Lightweight cobot uses standard 110 power, so can be easily moved to other work cells as needed

Key value drivers:

  • More flexibility than a CNC at nearly one-fifth the cost
  • Available within two weeks versus 12-month CNC lead-time
  • Cuts production time and risk of repetitive injuries
  • Improves employee retention and satisfaction with more interesting roles and growth opportunities
  • Reduces late delivery to less than one percent while cutting overtime

Tasks solved by collaborative robots:

  • Finish trimming of thermoformed plastic parts

Get in touch with Universal Robots

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- Improve employee well-being and retention
- Staff through labor shortages

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