Could robot machining be the future of agile manufacturing?

The future of manufacturing is to enable creative, agile solutions to manufacturing challenges using robotic machining systems.

In order to make and assemble very large and irregular-shaped parts, the individual pieces need to be machined and then joined together, as accurately, quickly and safely as possible. Traditionally, components that are too big for a five-axis machine tool bed have either been machined using a gantry CNC machine, or manually routed and milled by hand.

Gantry machining, while accurate, is fixed and positionally limited and it’s components are exposed to corrosive dust from continuous routing; especially of acrylic, foam and soft metal. Hand milling or routing, while very flexible, can be inconsistent in terms of accuracy and the human operator must wear high grade respirators and protective clothing; even then he/she is exposed to dust that can create a health hazard.

Robotic machining solves these problems simply and cost-effectively. The package of robot, tooling / end-effectors, software and training often costs less than a comparable gantry CNC machine and software package. A robot, when integrated with a track, can move along the workpiece, giving users flexibility to work around bulky components at an infinite number of positions and angles. Accuracy and quality are high, with systems designed by CNC Robotics offering better than expected tolerances. Robots are more impervious to the effects of dust and can work with guards or inside sealed cells, keeping operators safe and distanced from the working area.

Because robots have flexible positioning, they also free-up designers to create designs outside the constraints imposed by more rigid gantry machining. This agility appeals to companies in a growing number of sectors.

CNC Robotics is pioneering the application of robots to large volume machining solutions. With its roots in the production of props for the film and theatre industries, CNC Robotics has quickly expanded into almost every industrial sector, says managing director Philippa Glover. “As well as the creative industries and general manufacturing, in the last year we have worked within defence, the space industry, aerospace, niche automotive and electric automotive.”

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Agile software and hardware combine

Robot machining systems are becoming more accessible to customers because the software and hardware have become more intuitive. Software that was originally developed for CNC machines has become specialised for robotics, moving beyond pathways for cutting tools; it can now incorporate, for example, a probe to identify a part and to measure what has been cut, giving a more holistic manufacturing solution that better suits the customer.

“Robots can offer more adaptive manufacturing processes,” says Bart Simpson, chairman of CNC Robotics. “Rather than putting a lot of energy into moving a large object around to get it in the right place before you do an operation on it, you digitally move all of your manufacturing instructions to match where the part physically is.”

He adds that the versatility of the software applied to the correct robot and track system allows companies to reconfigure their manufacturing for when their own customer has a new, very different project. Powerful CAM can be used to define the machining paths and in some instances integrated with software such as RoboDK to convert the CAM code into robot movements.

CNC Robotics’ agile manufacturing approach is about solutions, not out-of-the-box hardware.

“As an organisation we develop a collaborative working relationship with the customer to really understand what their needs and challenges are,” says Bart. “The solution that we design is based on our real understanding of the customers production process and then optimized for what they are trying to achieve”.

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Two-in-one flexibility, quality and training

Successful businesses must have differentiators. Can’t large bed CNC machine tools and gantry CNC machines produce parts with higher accuracy than robots?

A CNC machine tool will always achieve higher tolerances than a robot machining system. It is a common myth to think robots are competing with machine tools on accuracy, says Jason Barker, founder and CTO of CNC Robotics. Robot machining systems excel in applications that need adaptability, speed and good, but not micron-level accuracy – which still covers a huge number of industrial needs. And often, the quality that robots produce exceeds expectations.

One customer that makes interior components for buses, trains, and manufactures both two dimensional parts and some three-dimensional parts, wanted to replace their three-axis CNC machine and five-axis gantry CNC machine.

“They bought two robots from CNC Robotics instead of new CNC machines, because the robots are capable of producing both the two-dimensional and three-dimensional parts, but with the added value of the reach capability. The robot can produce parts that simply couldn’t be achieved by the five-axis machine they had considered purchasing,” says Jason. “They got a hybrid mix of a flatbed router and five-axis CNC machine in one robot system.”

Another crucial differentiator with the robot machining approach is thorough training. This is delivered by CNC Robotics and typically starts well before any robot purchase.

“We work closely with the customer beyond commissioning and well into the routine operation of the system, working through any troubleshooting,” says Philippa. “We know that, ultimately, it’s both the shop floor operators and the management team that need to adopt this new technology and ensure that everything else around it works, in order to enable them to get the right value out of the machine.”

The number of manufacturing companies choosing robotic machining solutions is growing. “Composites machining is a very important area at the moment,” says Jason. “Pretty much any company manufacturing with composite materials could benefit from the agility, speed and quality of a robotic machining system.”