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.”