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A full guide to machine tending robots

May 17, 2024 | Philip Hegarty

machine-tending-robots


Introduction to Machine Tending

Machine tending is a pivotal task in manufacturing. It traditionally involves the manual operation of loading and unloading production machines. This process is crucial for industries utilizing CNC machines and injection molding because it’s labor-intensive, time-consuming, and relies heavily on human operators. However, the advent of collaborative robots, or cobots, has revolutionized these aspects of manufacturing. By automating the loading and unloading of CNC machines and injection molding machines, manufacturers get more consistent and scalable machining.


The Rise of Cobots in Machine Tending

Collaborative robots, designed to work alongside humans, have become a game-changer in machine tending. Unlike their traditional counterparts, cobots are equipped with advanced safety features that allow them to operate in close proximity to human workers without the need for extensive safety barriers. Additionally, cobots are user-friendly and accessible, with intuitive interfaces and programming capabilities that make them easy to operate and integrate into existing workflows. This integration of robotics has not only improved efficiency but also addressed the growing challenge of labor shortages in the manufacturing sector.


What Are Machine Tending Robots?

*Video courtesy of Mid Atlantic Machinery

Machine tending robots represent a significant evolution in the automation of manufacturing processes. Robot arms can easily be programmed to automatically handle the loading and unloading of machines, such as CNC machines, injection molding machines, and other industrial equipment that require consistent feeding of raw materials or removal of finished parts. 


What Does a Machine Tending Robot Do?

Machine tending robots excel in a variety of manufacturing and industrial applications, ensuring seamless production workflows across diverse machining processes. By handling the tasks of loading raw materials and unloading finished products, these robots optimize the use of CNC machines for milling, turning, and drilling.

Similarly, machine tending robots enhance the efficiency of lathe machining operations and press brake machine tending by automating material handling and supporting complex insert and over-molding processes with much more consistent precision than a human operator.

Their deployment across these key areas not only boosts operational efficiency but also contributes to substantial reductions in manual labor costs and error rates, embodying a transformative approach to modern manufacturing.

A continuous improvement manager at Spector & Co, a leading manufacturer of branded promotional materials, is quoted as saying:

“Vention really made it simple for us to get into our first [machine tending] robotic project. Their involvement and their guidance helped us implement this new project at our facility. We are really looking forward to working with them on future projects as opportunities grow…” - Linton Christy, Research & Development Manager

Machine tending robots complete a wide variety of tasks. Here’s how they are utilized in common manufacturing practices:

Automated CNC Mill

CNC mills are known to have a fixed workpiece with cutting and shaping tools moving around it to machine it. CNC machine tending robots are useful during the loading and unloading of these workpieces from the CNC, ensuring the milling or drilling operations run efficiently. Their precision and speed streamline the production process, enabling continuous operation without the need for manual intervention.

Automated CNC Lathe 

In CNC lathe machining, the machine rotates the workpiece against the cutting tools to make a shape. Machine tending robots are useful for loading and unloading workpieces in CNC turning operations, ensuring the machine operates with maximum overall equipment effectiveness. Their use in this area highlights their versatility and ability to adapt to different manufacturing processes.

Automated Press Brake Machine Tending

Machine tending robots also find application in press brake machine tending, where they manage the insertion and removal of materials that need bending or shaping. This automation not only speeds up the process but also enhances safety by reducing human exposure to potentially hazardous operations.

Automated Insert Molding

In insert molding processes, these robots place inserts into molds before plastic injection, a task that demands precision to ensure the quality of the final product. Their use in this application underscores their ability to perform intricate tasks with high accuracy.

Automated Overmolding

Finally, in overmolding, machine tending robots are responsible for placing the substrate into the mold before the overmolding process. Their involvement ensures that the process is carried out with consistency and precision, contributing to the high quality of the finished products.


Where are Machine Tending Robots Used?

*Video courtesy of Matt Malloy

The application of machine tending robots spans across various industries, each benefiting from the automation and efficiency these robots provide. Here’s how they are utilized in key sectors:


Automotive Manufacturing

In the automotive sector, machine tending robots handle metal pressing, CNC/Lathe machining, injection molding, and dispensing, playing a critical role in the production of vehicles and their components.

Metal Fabrication

In metal fabrication plants and job shops, machine tending robots perform tasks such as stamping, punching, bending, and cutting, enhancing precision and productivity in the creation of metal parts.

Plastics and Injection Molding

Machine tending robots are pivotal in the plastics industry, especially in injection molding processes, where they efficiently place and remove plastic parts.

Aerospace and Defense

The aerospace and defense industries rely on machine tending robots for the loading and unloading of high-precision parts into and out of machines, where meticulous quality control is essential.

Foundries and Casting

In foundries and casting operations, machine tending robots manage the loading and unloading of high-temperature materials and perform tasks in harsh environments, demonstrating their robustness and effectiveness in making the workplace safer.


Advantages of Implementing Machine Tending Robots

mid-atlantic-machine-tending

In the modern manufacturing landscape, machine tending robots are pivotal for enhancing efficiency, accuracy, and safety. By taking over repetitive and potentially hazardous tasks, these robots free up human workers to focus on more complex and less monotonous tasks, thereby improving overall productivity and workplace safety.

The implementation of machine tending robots comes with numerous benefits. Not only can they offer more operational efficiency without the need for breaks or shifts, but they also significantly reduce the risk of human error and the potential for workplace injuries. Additionally, their precision and speed can lead to improvements in production quality and throughput, making them an invaluable asset in any low- to high-volume manufacturing environment.


Unmanned Machining for Continuous Productivity

The shift towards unmanned machining is a strategic response to the prevalent labor challenges and shortages within the manufacturing sector. By integrating collaborative or industrial robots capable of sustaining operations around the clock, manufacturers can significantly boost their overall equipment effectiveness and maintain a competitive edge.

These automated systems not only address the gap left by labor shortages but also ensure that production processes are not halted, thereby maximizing productivity and efficiency. This advancement underscores a pivotal move towards more resilient and self-sufficient manufacturing environments.

Boosting Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE)

The concept of OEE is a comprehensive measure of manufacturing productivity, focusing on availability, performance, and quality. Machine tending robots elevate OEE by automating loading and unloading tasks, freeing up human workers for value-added activities. Additionally, these robots can perform secondary tasks like deburring, cleaning, and quality control checks, further optimizing production lines.

Achieving Manufacturing Agility

Agile manufacturing is a modern industrial revolution that emphasizes flexibility and responsiveness to customer demand. Machine tending robots are at the forefront of this shift, and Vention’s one-of-a-kind, easy-to-use MachineLogic software allows for the ability to quickly adapt to new tasks through easy programming and reprogramming, reducing the reliance on skilled labor for repetitive tasks.

In addition, MachineLogic is robot-agnostic, meaning it is compatible with multiple robot brands. By having a single software solution, you can avoid costly training on the different robot interfaces available and quickly respond to changes in market demand or product design to achieve agile manufacturing.

Supporting Technologies and Processes

Machine tending robots are part of a broader ecosystem that includes complementary technologies and methodologies like lean manufacturing principles, just-in-time production, and flexible manufacturing systems. These elements work together to streamline production processes, minimize waste, and enhance the adaptability of manufacturing operations.

By integrating these practices, businesses can create a fully agile manufacturing environment that is efficient and responsive to changing market demands.


Anatomy of a Machine Tending Cell

AEC-machine-tending

The anatomy of a machine tending cell varies depending on the specific machining process it’s designed for, including CNC machining, lathe operations, press brake tasks, or injection molding. Each setup can involve the following:

  • CNC/Lathe/Press Brake/Injection Mold Machine: The primary machines that machine, shape, or mold parts. Each type requires specific considerations for additional robotic automation.
  • Infeed and outfeed systems: For handling parts before and after machining.
  • Controller: A crucial element that coordinates the machine’s actions, syncing with the robotic system for seamless operation.
  • Operator: In automated cells, the robot, which is programmed to manage operations efficiently, fulfills this role.
  • Teach Pendant: A handheld device essential for programming and operating the robot, allowing for flexible adjustments in operations.
  • Parts: The raw materials fed into the machine are transformed into machined parts during the process.
  • EOATs (End of Arm Tooling): These tools vary depending on the task and the shape of the parts to tend. Pneumatic or electric grippers are often used, with two or three-finger options. Also, automatic or manual tool changers can be used to quickly change EOATs when changing the type of parts to tend.
  • Robot Arms: The core of the automated cell, this component is tasked with the loading and unloading of materials, part handling, and other tasks to streamline the workflow.

Which Robots Are Best for Machine Tending Automation?


FANUC Machine Tending Robots

FANUC offers a wide range of robots suitable for machine tending, known for their reliability, precision, and high payload capacities. These robots are designed to work in harsh industrial environments, making them ideal for a variety of machine tending applications. Their CRX series of collaborative robots, including the CRX-10ia/L and the CRX-20ia/L, is especially well suited for these types of applications.

Universal Robots Machine Tending Robots

Universal Robots specializes in cobots that are particularly well-suited for machine tending tasks. Their cobots are known for their flexibility, ease of programming, and safety features that allow them to work alongside human operators, making them a popular choice for small and medium-sized enterprises. The UR10 is a well-known robot model in machine tending because of its reach and payload capacity, and the addition of the UR20 in their lineups simply increases possibilities.


When Should You Use a Machine Tending Robot?

Machine tending robots significantly enhance production efficiency in various situations. Here are three key scenarios where they prove particularly beneficial:


You Aren’t Able to Maximize Your Machine’s Output

In high-demand environments where machines aren’t operating at peak capacity due to limited human resources, machine tending robots can automate loading and unloading tasks. This is ideal for low- to high-volume production settings where continuous operation can drastically increase output.

You Need to Reduce Labor Costs

Given the competitive nature of manufacturing, reducing labor costs without sacrificing output quality is crucial. Machine tending robots, despite their initial investment, offer a long-term solution to minimize labor expenses through automation, with only marginal maintenance costs over time.

You Want to Run Lights Out

Many manufacturers strive to achieve “lights out” manufacturing production or fully automated operation without human intervention. Machine tending robots facilitate this by ensuring machines can operate unattended, even overnight, provided there’s sufficient material for continuous processing. This scenario is less feasible in operations requiring regular human supervision.

Implementing machine tending robots under these circumstances can substantially improve operational efficiency, reduce costs, and enhance production capabilities.


Choosing the Right Software for Machine Tending 

Choosing the right software to program and operate your machine tending robot cell is crucial. We recommend looking for a user-friendly programming interface with no-code/low-code programming options.

By lowering the barrier to entry, operators can make changes when needed rather than relying on someone with extensive programming knowledge. Additionally, ensure that the software is compatible with the specific make and model of your cobot. Compatibility is crucial for seamless integration.

Vention’s MachineLogic is a code-free interface that allows you to create powerful automation sequences without writing a single line of code. If you already have programming experience, you can also program using Python with MachineLogic.

The interface is robot-agnostic, so you can utilize your preferred robot brand without worrying about compatibility. Additionally, simulate with MachineLogic to preview automated sequences and validate them prior to deployment.


How Much Does a Machine Tending Robot Cost?

Investing in machine tending robots involves various costs, which can range from $50,000 USD for basic setups to well into six figures for complex integrations. Key expenses include:

  • Robot 
  • Software/Programming
  • Mounting hardware
  • Safety equipment
  • End-of-arm tooling (EOAT)
  • Controller
  • Linear actuators, robot gantry systems, or Robot Transport Units for robot mobility

Vention offers complete solutions in the form of off the shelf machine tending cells or customizable machine tending robot stations. If you’re not sure where to start, Vention’s automation experts are available to assist with scoping and building any machine tending automation project.


Calculating ROI for Machine Tending Robots

When calculating the ROI for machine tending robots, consider initial setup costs, including hardware, machine tending software or programming, and safety equipment, against long-term benefits like labor savings, increased productivity, and reduced downtime. Factor in potential unforeseen costs and the qualitative benefits of improved worker safety and product quality. A thorough ROI analysis will help determine the financial viability and strategic advantage of integrating machine tending robots into your manufacturing process.

Vention’s one-stop-shop machine tending robot solutions encompass all of these elements. You can easily calculate your ROI using the machine tending robot ROI Calculator.


Machine Tending Robots Case Studies 

gasbarre-machine-tending

Manufacturers looking to implement robotic machine tending should research case studies to see the robotic systems in action. This will provide insights into the ease of use, performance, and integration capabilities with your existing production line. Here are two real-world case studies created to show Vention’s Machine Tending solution in action:


Gasbarre: Automating unloading with precision and efficiency

Gasbarre, a Vention Automation Partner, is a global supplier of custom capital equipment for the powder compaction and heat treating industries. One of their clients’ challenges involved delicately unloading components from a Gasbarre 30T Hydraulic press and precisely situating them onto a tray system. Gasbarre created a machine tending system to unload delicate parts, achieving lights-out production and streamlined operations. Read the full customer story.


Spector & Co: Introducing Automation to Remove Repetitive Tasks

Spector & Co. introduced their first collaborative robot to remove the repetitive task of machine tending bottles for their laser engraving machine. As the company’s first entry into automation, the machine’s ease of use allows anyone to operate it and make programming changes. The introduction of automated machine tending allowed for more accurate and predictable production schedules, increasing the company’s efficiency. Read the full customer story. 


FAQs about Machine Tending Robots


  1. What tasks can machine tending robots perform?
    Machine tending robots are versatile and can handle various tasks, including loading and unloading parts in CNC machines, lathes, brake presses, and injection mold machines. They can also perform secondary tasks such as quality checks, cleaning, and finishing operations, enhancing overall production efficiency.

  2. How do machine tending robots improve manufacturing processes?
    They increase production rates, reduce labor costs, and enable lights-out manufacturing by automating repetitive tasks. This allows human workers to focus on more complex tasks, improves safety by minimizing human interaction with dangerous machinery, and ensures consistent product quality.

  3. Are machine tending robots suitable for small businesses?
    Yes, machine tending robots are scalable and can be a viable solution for businesses of all sizes, including small and medium-sized manufacturers. Their flexibility, ease of programming, and ability to work alongside humans make them suitable for various applications, ensuring a quick ROI even for smaller operations.

Training

Prior to deploying your first machine tending project, you should have some practical skills and knowledge to ensure a successful project. To support you in machine tending robot projects, Vention offers in-person and virtual machine tending training sessions designed to give you hands-on experience and make you an expert in machine tending. Schedule your team’s visit today. 


Conclusion

Automating machine tending represents a transformative shift for manufacturers seeking to eliminate manual and repetitive tasks from their operations. By implementing a machine tending robot to handle the loading and unloading of CNC machines, human workers can redirect their efforts toward more value-added activities. Operating autonomously, the robot can enable lights-out production, optimize machine output, and slash labor costs.

Vention provides comprehensive support throughout every stage of the process, from selecting the appropriate cobot to programming, simulating, deploying, operating, and training your staff. With a strong emphasis on customer support, we ensure a seamless transition to automated machine tending.

Contact one of our experts today to discover more about the benefits of automating machine tending.

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