Automatic shifter relieves operators
Lubricants such as motor oil have a function that cannot be underestimated. They ensure that machines or engines perform optimally and protect against wear and tear. In this way, production safety remains guaranteed. By partly automating the manual checking of oil samples, the safety and ergonomics of laboratory workers are also given a boost. ATS Group searched for and found the solution to automate the capping and uncapping of bottles via a cobot.
Manual processing oil samples
An energy supplier and lubricant manufacturer is looking for more ergonomics for its lab technicians and ends up with ATS Group for this challenge.
The manufacturer's lab is responsible for processing oil samples. In this way, they check whether engines, hydraulic systems or industrial installations are still working properly. Analyzing the samples is a very repetitive and not very ergonomic job. All samples arrive by mail in bottles of different sizes. After shaking, lab technicians manually twist the cap off the bottle to analyze the sample. When the vials need to be stored, they screw the caps back on the vials.
Increased operator efficiency and ergonomics
In a first step toward automation and better working conditions, the lab provides a semi-automatic solution for the small bottles or high runners. The device clamps the bottles and, using a pneumatic tool, employees unscrew the caps. Unfortunately, the system is not 100% efficient: not all caps come off immediately and it remains a very stressful job for the operator.
Time to fully automate this chore with employee ergonomics as a top priority! Once the employee enters a tray of bottles into the installation and selects the right type of bottle via the screen, everything should be automatic. In addition, the current capacity is also no longer sufficient. By performing more operations in the same time, the manufacturer wishes to achieve a production increase to 1,400 bottles per day. The available space remains unchanged and in addition to unscrewing the caps, the machine must also be able to screw them back on. A spirited challenge that brings together ATS Group's Mechatronics and Automation Business Units with a kick off in January 2021.
Interaction Mechatronics and Automation
"The entire process for this installation was characterized by continuous consultation," says Joris Van den Dorpe, Project Engineer at A.T.S. nv. "Starting from the mechatronic concept, we constantly coordinated with the Automation Business Unit. Together we came to the conclusion that we needed a robot gripper for this job. Our colleagues from automation therefore bought a cobot and started testing it. Once we were sure it was up to the task and the customer accepted our solution, we explored the concept further."
"For the PLC side and the basic construction of the program, such as the visualization and the construction of the screens, we could fall back on previous experience. Although, of course, we had to adapt everything to this specific project," Joris continues. "The available space for the installation was one of the most difficult boundary conditions: the robot cell could not be larger than the existing work table of 1200 by 1000 mm. Also, the fact that we were working with a new type of robot for the first time made this installation quite challenging."
Cobot as a first
"It was indeed the very first time we worked with a cobot, and also the first time with the supplier Universal Robots," says Laura De Rijcke, Account Manager Robotics at A.T.S. nv. "A cobot is a collaborative robot. This type of robot is made to work safely with people. The way of programming is different for a cobot than for an industrial robot: it is easier for small "demo" tasks but more complex to create complicated/large programs. In theory, cobots do not need shielding, but we chose to provide it in this particular setup anyway because the pneumatics in the installation can present potential hazards."
Joris adds: "Because of this new type of robot, we not only had to figure out how it works but it was also tough to find the right components together. For the screw head, for example, we looked for a 'plug & play' solution so we didn't have to design it ourselves. We found it at our supplier SAB-bnl, which specializes in screw connections. Once all the puzzle pieces were in place, it was a matter of getting everything together in the robot cell without collisions."
Doing what needs to be done and more
And it succeeded wonderfully! By June 2021, the robotic cell was ready to take delivery and to do what needs to be done: after placing the tray in the machine and selecting the type of bottle and the desired screw option, the cobot automatically unscrews the caps. The caps are automatically ejected into a waste bin. Do the bottles need to be re-capped? Then the lab technician fills the machine with new caps delivered via a buffer with a bend.
In addition, the ATS Team also provided some additional features. For example, the operator can deactivate absent vials in the tray in advance. Is the bottle not deactivated but absent? Then the robot "sees" this and simply continues with the next bottle. If necessary, the tray can still be broken off. Is the tray only half filled? Then the operation is automatically aborted after 3 consecutive absent vials. In addition, the machine knows at any time which bottle is where and from which place in the tray it came.
The new "colleague" clearly makes a world of difference for the operators!