The use of CNC technology allows the full and scalable integration of a robot into any machining operation, whether for pick-and-place, part articulation or full machining capability. This allows shops of all sizes to reach new levels of productivity.
Full robotic integration with a CNC onto a 3-axis mill, 5-axis work cell, laser line, press line or full transfer line incorporating multiple machining or metalforming operations would have seemed a distant wish, just a decade ago.
Not that long ago, the use of a robot in any machining or metalforming operation required a separate PLC, separate programming language and a completely separate control, with all the knowledge needed to run the robot. Also, most robotic applications were limited to simple and repetitive part movements.
Today, on an advanced CNC with multi-channel capability, manufacturers can dramatically improve the productivity of the machine shop, production department, laser, press brake or fabrication shop operation-and it can be done without any special knowledge of robot language or all the ancillary hardware and software. Flexible loading and unloading mean the machine spindle, laser head, press brake or stamping die is in use to a far greater degree and that means money to the bottom line, even for the short run or disparate part family producers. With the compact robots on the market, plus this integrated CNC control capability, even the smallest shop today can look at robotic solutions for their operations. At short run shops, the on-the-fly program adjustments and teach-in capabilities of the CNC are today proving their worth.
With that dual channel capability onscreen, an operator can use the same control, whether stationary on the machine or on a remote pendant for mobility around the machine or work cell, to run both the machine and the robot.
For the shop owner, the initial cost of the system is amortizable across the use-life of the robot and the improvements in productivity will quickly validate the feasibility and profitability of the system.
For the programmer, the function blocks of robot automation can now be programmed directly through the PLC of the machine tool, then run on the CNC in the same way as the cutting or forming programs. This applies to conventional metalcutting, metalforming and even additive strategies alike.
For the operator, the simplified setup and adjustment of the robot to handle a family of short run parts, for example, is easier than ever. Using the human-machine interface on the CNC, an operator can teach the robot which motions to perform in a matter of minutes. With no need for the separate PLC or signal command language, the operator sets up the robot in the same manner as the machine tool, laser, press or other equipment. In a work cell, the robot can be sequenced to perform a variety of operations at each machine in the cell. Most advanced control suppliers and machine builders already have or will soon have robotic training and maintenance programs in place for you.
These solutions are scalable to suit the requirements of your shop or production department, so robot integration into a single machine, work cell or fully networked facility quickly can become a cost-effective alternative today.
Best of all, robotic integration is now a feasible option for the OEM machine builder, for retrofit in the shop or for the system integrator looking to help his customer improve the overall productivity of the metalworking department.
And there's more to come. The future will see the machine builder offering a pallet pool concept, applicable in high-volume applications as well as the one-off world of medical implant manufacturing and moldmaking. The robot will sense a bar code or radio-frequency identification tag, position a blank, load the right tools and perform the work, often with a tool in its "hand" to reach pockets, undercuts and other difficult areas on a workpiece.
The robot will be able to polish a die set and move seamlessly over a mold surface, with built-in vision and intelligence to make decisions and overcome errors in all types of piecework, whether subtractive or additive.
Robots can really lend a helping hand to all metalworking operations today. And the CNC makes that process a lot easier. It is a collaboration worth exploring.
-Randy Pearson is a veteran of the machine tool industry and a Siemens international business development manager. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.