ActiNav Boosts Competitiveness, Empowers Workers and Extends Lifespan of Legacy Equipment at PrecisionForm
01 the short story
PrecisionForm, a market leader in small custom metal parts, was challenged to automate the task of picking parts in deep bins and inserting them into a CNC machine. The company deployed Universal Robots’ ActiNav system for flexible machine loading, enabling them to boost competitiveness, overcome labor challenges, empower their workforce and extend the lifespan of older equipment.
02 the challenge
What’s the biggest headache in automating a task? How to present the part to the robot. This was the conclusion PrecisionForm quickly reached when automating their initial project; deploying a robot to pick piston rings and place them on a micrometer for inspection. Like many parts at the Pennsylvania-based contract manufacturer, the rings were batch processed and arrived in big bins, all jumbled together. In order for the cobot to pick them, an operator had to lay them out in a grid pattern on a tray first.
“50-75% of our time spent getting that application up and running was figuring out how the robot would pick the parts,” says Alex Corckran, President and CEO of PrecisionForm. “Having an operator lay out parts for the cobot was still faster than doing the whole inspection process manually – but wouldn’t it be nice if the cobot could just pick directly from the bin and bypass this whole step?”
PrecisionForm started researching bin picking solutions for their next project; picking parts out of bins for CNC milling. The company contacted a number of vendors and sent them sample parts to determine if they could be picked out of bins. “The answers were always, ‘Yes: but...’ and the “buts” were never acceptable to us,” says Corckran, recalling how some systems had trouble with parts that were certain colors, others had issues with flat parts, while some systems required the vendor’s engineer to come out and handle the changeover from one part to the next.
“We have 50 to 100 parts that we touch on a weekly basis for inspection or secondary processes,” says the PrecisionForm CEO. “The vast majority of those parts are not high enough quantities to justify having a fully automated solution that we can’t easily switch between parts.”
Using a bowl feeder for part presentation wasn’t a viable option, explains Corckran. “Bowl feeders are effective when you have very high volumes and you have the right part for the job. For other parts, when you have lower volumes, the changeover between one part to the next on a bowl feeder is either impossible, or just takes too long to make it effective. In many cases, it’s just easier to have a person do that work rather than switch over the automation process.”
Video — ActiNav, PrecisionForm Inc. USA
03 the solution
When Universal Robots (UR) and UR distributor Applied Controls reached out to PrecisionForm to suggest a test of the ActiNav solution, Corckran was skeptical: “We figured it was going to be the same as all the other bin-picking solutions, where we send them a part and weeks later they send us a ‘But.’” Nevertheless, PrecisionForm sent the ActiNav team sample parts along with CAD drawings and 3D models. “We were actually shocked,” says Corckran. “We sent them two parts, including one with a very small, flat surface that never sits in the bin properly and within 24 hours they had sent us three demo videos of ActiNav actually picking the parts out of a bin.”
A UR cobot, when combined with an award-winning ActiNav Machine Loading kit creates a flexible and easy to use machine loading solution. The kit consists of hardware and software that integrate seamlessly with the cobot to synchronously handle vision processing, collision-free motion planning, and autonomous real-time robot control.
Simple automation choice
PrecisionForm already owned a UR3 and a UR5 cobot from Universal Robots; the UR3 handles the initial piston ring inspection process and the UR5 loads and unloads parts in a brake press. Building on its positive experiences with Universal Robots’ cobots and the impressive results of the initial bin picking samples, PrecisionForm decided to purchase an additional UR5 fitted with the ActiNav solution and deploy for a very simple, low-hanging fruit task; picking firearm parts out of a bin and into a CNC machine. The task has a cycle time of 90 seconds and requires one full-time operator to tend it, making it a perfect task to automate.
The ActiNav system took maybe a day to set up and deploy, says Dan Vazquez, industrial automation engineer at PrecisionForm: “The first step is to define the environment and calibrate the sensors, which is very straightforward. You drag the robot arm to points where you want to place environment objects and once you define those points, the robot will autonomously plan its paths based on that information.” Next, Vazquez simply fed the cobot a CAD file of the part to be picked. “ActiNav will be able to identify the part within the bin, as well as its position on the end effector while it also autonomously plans further movements,” he explains, adding that PrecisionForm implemented two re-grip stations in the cycle where parts are placed to optimize cycle time and give the cobot the correct angle to pick the part for final placement.
The award-winning ActiNav Flexible Machine Loader kit is a flexible, easy to use, machine loading solution. The kit consists of hardware and software that integrate seamlessly with a UR5e or UR10e cobot arm to synchronously handle vision processing, collision-free motion planning, and autonomous real-time robot control.
“After we sent our sample parts to Universal Robots and the ActiNav team for testing, we received a response very quickly, and we were very excited to see that they were able to reliably pick from the bin all the parts that we had sent them. And we decided then to move forward and deploy the system here,” says Dan Vazquez, Industrial Automation Engineer at PrecisionForm.
ActiNav’s 3D sensor above the bin scans the parts to be picked and sends a 3D point cloud image to the system’s Autonomous Motion Module where the pick coordinates and path are calculated.
Alex Corckran, (right) President and CEO at Precision Form with Justin Griffin, Channel Development Manager at Universal Robots, watch the ActiNav teach pendant run through the actions the system performs. “This initial task for ActiNav was actually a very simple choice,” says Corckran. “Our CNC machine cuts scallops in a part for firearms. it’s a minute and a half cycle time, and it takes one operator to sit there the whole time and tend the machine. Deploying ActiNav for this task instead has worked incredibly well.”
05 ActiNav empowers workers, solves labor challenges
PrecisionForm can’t be competitive at an international level from Lititz, Pennsylvania with one operator running one machine at a time, says Corckran: “We have a whole lot of very skilled workers. A lot of these very repetitive tasks are intermittent, so we often find ourselves having to take a highly-skilled person and put them on a very repetitive task, and that’s not great for morale, and it’s not cost-effective either.”
Following the ActiNav deployment, operators can run three or four machines at a time, enabling the company to stay competitive and helping it to overcome challenges around intermittent requirements for temporary labor. In Corckran’s experience, when temporary labor is required to take on intermittent tasks, finding “good, qualified folks to show up on a regular basis when you need them” is a challenge. ActiNav solves that problem.
“I can’t be competitive at an international level in Lititz, Pennsylvania with one operator running one machine at a time,” says Alex Corckran, President and CEO of PrecisionForm. Following the ActiNav deployment, operators can run three or four machines at a time, enabling the company to stay competitive: “This solution allows us to have highly-trained people operating three or four robots, enabling us to use those people in other applications where they’re adding more value.”
The reaction from operators was mixed at first, says Dan Vazquez, industrial automation engineer at PrecisionForm: “Some people were excited to see the new technology, and some were kind of distrusting. But that changed once they saw the potential that this technology has, to the point that some of them have given the robots names. ‘Chloe,’ for example, is a UR cobot that works on the presses.”
‘Chloe’, PrecisionForm’s first UR5 cobot, works on a brake press. “The hole that we insert the parts into has very tight tolerances, and the part has very tight tolerances. Because of our experience with our first UR cobot application deploying a UR3 for inspection, we recognized that we would be able to use a UR5 to get that part into that die,” explains PrecisionForm’s President and CEO Alex Corckran.
PrecisionForm’s first UR cobot application featured a UR3 cobot that picks a piston ring, places it on a micrometer for inspection, and then drops it into a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ bin dependent on outcome. The company plans to use the ActiNav system here in the future so the cobot can pick the rings directly from bins instead of having manual labor first place the rings in a grid pattern on a tray for the robot to pick.
Inspection with ActiNav gives legacy equipment another 10 years on the floor
PrecisionForm’s manufacturing facility combines the “latest-and-greatest CNC equipment” with “30-year old equipment that’s still very effective at its job,” says Corckran. The ability to implement ActiNav on older equipment doesn’t just have the obvious ROI of replacing an operator or allowing a single operator to operate four machines, explains Corckran, it allows companies to rethink whether or not that piece of equipment needs to be replaced: “For example, we have some machines that produce very high-volume parts, in the millions a year. At some point, those machines wear out, and they stop producing 100 percent, or 99.999 percent good parts. In the old reality, we would have to replace that machine to stay competitive,” he says and continues: “However, if we can implement ActiNav next to that machine and inspect out the one percent of bad parts, we’ve just taken a million dollar piece of equipment, added a very inexpensive solution to it, and potentially gotten another ten years out of it.”
The tolerances of parts manufactured at PrecisionForm are extremely tight and customers scrutinize every part. In order to keep the company’s old equipment producing at the level customers expect, the operators stop once an hour for ten to fifteen minutes and do a full inspection of both the part and the die. “That’s as much as 15 to 20 percent of daily production lost, that we can now recuperate using ActiNav” concludes Corckran, adding that in future application scenarios, PrecisionForm envisages also using an additional ActiNav system on its first piston ring inspection application, eliminating the manually-loaded trays.
“For end users, I would recommend taking the basic introduction to Universal Robots. But after that, programming the ActiNav is essentially the same as you would program any other UR application thanks to the intuitive 3D interface on the teach pendant,” explains Dan Vazquez, industrial automation engineer at PrecisionForm.
ROI challenges around newer CNC machines mean there will always be a place for legacy machines, says Alex Corckran, President and CEO, PrecisionForm: “Using a cost-effective solution such as ActiNav to inspect out the small percentage of bad parts produced by legacy machines will allow us to leave that older machine on the floor and remain competitive.”
“Whenever I discuss implementing cobots in our plant with colleagues and friends in similar industries, the question of cycle time always comes up, and the answer is actually pretty simple: Most of the time, the robot is slower. However, the robot stays there and doesn’t take a break, and the robot works second shift, third shift if we’re open, and we can count on them being there the next day,” says Alex Corckran, President and CEO, PrecisionForm.
While the machine is running, the robot returns to pick a new part from the bin and queues it up in the re-grip station to save on cycle time later in the process. The company equipped the UR5 cobot arm with the Hand-E gripper from Robotiq. Hand-E is a UR+ certified gripper which means it seamlessly integrates with the UR cobot. “The ability of the Robotiq gripper to adapt to new fingers that we designed made it possible to reach in there and pull the part out accurately,” says Vazquez.
The ActiNav environment setup and alignment is “teach by demonstration”, allowing the user to simply grab the robot arm and teach it the desired moves and environment.
- Flexible machine loading and bin-picking capabilities
- Improved inspection processes
- Employees freed up for more value-adding tasks
- Extending lifespan of legacy equipment
- Small footprint
- Collaborative, safe and easy to program
- Successfully picks parts out of deep bins
- Eliminated part presentation challenges
- Replaced repetitive manual tasks using safe and collaborative automation
- Deployed on legacy equipment
- Suitable for deployment on additional applications
- UR's ActiNav handles machine loading and bin-picking at PrecisionForm. ActiNav's powerful bin-picking capabilities eliminate part presentation challenges, while its flexibility allows the system to be deployed in a variety of applications and on legacy machinery.
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