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Flexible collaborative robots boost capacity at Swedish machine shop

FT-Produktion turned to flexible collaborative robots – cobots – to boost productivity without adding personnel. The new technology also elevated job satisfaction by bringing variation to daily routines – a key advantage in an industry battling to attract and retain qualified labour.

No machine shop in its right mind would turn down global leaders like Volvo, Renault and Scania when they come calling with orders – even if it means pushing capacity and productivity to the limit. But in a labour market where recruiting qualified employees is easier said than done, it takes innovation to increase output capacity.

To meet growing market demand, the Swedish machine shop FT-Produktion turned to specialised robot technology designed to meet the automation needs of small and medium-sized manufacturing businesses. 

“We chose a combination of solutions from OnRobot, Universal Robots and EasyRobotics because they are easy to program. The investment in this solution will pay for itself in just nine months. Now we can fill significantly bigger orders,” says Joakim Karlberg, who owns and operates the family-owned machine shop FT-Produktion together with his sister.

Based in the southern Swedish town of Åseda and founded in 1983, FT-Produktion has a diverse staff of 25 employees with roots in Sweden, Norway, Lithuania, Syria and Thailand.

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Working in tandem with the neighbouring company Profilgruppen, FT-Produktion supplies a wide range of customers, including carmakers, construction companies, and the furniture industry.

The company’s metal profiles measure up to 7.5 metres and are used in the manufacturing of balconies, solar panels, electrical fixtures and lorries. FT-Produktion has annual turnover of SEK 19 million.

In 2017, the company made the largest investments in its history by renovating much of its machinery.

A small share of the overall investment went to a key addition: the introduction of a flexible cobot solution comprising a UR5 cobot from Universal Robots, two RG2 robot grippers from OnRobot and a ProFeeder from EasyRobotics.

This effective trio of Danish cobot solutions has now provided automated machine operation at FT-Produktion for more than a year. As a result, the sales department can accommodate orders with much higher volumes and shorter delivery times – without asking employees to work overtime.

“The demand for productivity continues to grow. But relevant manpower is hard to come by these days,” says Joakim Karlberg.

“Thanks to automation, an operator can keep three or four machines running at once without stress. We try to eliminate monotonous manual tasks by robotising the high volume production runs, giving employees more time to work on smaller runs with greater variation in their tasks.”

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Streamlined filling processes

With the cobot solution, a run of 150,000 units can be manufactured in less than two months with the robots working up to 16 hours a day, five days a week.

Once every 25 seconds, a gripper on the robot arm removes a raw part from the ProFeeder’s parts tray in the mover and inserts it in a CNC machine. In the same robot arm movement, the other gripper takes a finished part out of the CNC machine and places it in a container.

This is made possible by the robot arm’s “two hands”: an RG2 double gripper from OnRobot that reduces the cycle time by 12 seconds per task. In other words, FT-Produktion saves 500 hours when manufacturing a series of 150,000 parts.

In the past, an employee had to manually insert four parts at a time in a CNC machine, wait for 90 seconds, and then repeat the process for the duration of the workday. Now the solution requires just five minutes to manually fill one of the ProFeeder’s two movers.

When the robot has emptied one of the mover’s parts trays, the operator removes the empty mover and clicks a filled mover into place in the ProFeeder, allowing the CNC to rapidly resume operation.

Using the Lean Robot Automation concept from EasyRobotics, the filling process can be further optimised if the machine shop places the parts for processing directly into one of the mover’s parts trays in the preceding step of the overall process.

“It seems like there’s no end to this economic upswing, and therefore no end to our bottleneck issues. So we can already see many more opportunities for improved optimisation and automation. We’ll probably have an additional two cobots in our facility within the next two years,” says Joakim Karlberg.

FT-Produktion discovered cobot solutions during a meeting with the machinery dealer Edströms, which supplies and installs turnkey cobot solutions with various processing machines. Edströms also provides thorough training courses for employees tasked with operating and reconfiguring cobot arms, grippers and filling modules.

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A less monotonous working day

Mikael Andersson is a machine technician at FT-Production. One year ago, he also became a robot programmer and robot operator following two days of theoretical and hands-on training at Edströms.

The training course was based on the Universal Robots Academy concept, which includes ongoing follow-up training via free e-learning courses. Mikael also received training in the use of the EasyRobotics ProFeeder and the dual gripper from OnRobot, enabling him to easily and flexibly install, program, operate and reconfigure the overall solution.

“It was actually easier to use robots than I had expected. If you’re standing there all day, feeding the same machine with parts, you can feel it in every joint of your body at the end of the day,” says Mikael Andersson.

“Now my job is less monotonous and much more interesting. It’s fun to watch a robot at work! I would like to see more of them here. This cobot solution is so easy to reconfigure that even small production runs are feasible in terms of costs.”

The Swedish machine shop manufactures 650 different aluminium profiles and fills 7,000 orders annually, with production runs ranging from five to 150,000 units. Given the wide range of tasks and volumes, flexible automation is absolutely essential. A single robot solution must be capable of handling many different parts with minimal downtime when reconfiguring from one production run to the next.

The new generation of collaborative robot arms also requires high-performance accessories. For example, the functionality and user-friendliness of grippers ultimately determine the scope and variety of tasks and parts that can be automated, as well as the ROI time for automation investments.

“It only takes 10 seconds to change to a different part on the robot’s display,” says Mikael Andersson, who sees the robot as a useful tool in a time of high demand and limited labour supply.

“The robots are not taking any jobs. We can fill more orders and deliver more detailed parts with higher quality when we use the robots. They have been easy to install and adjust, so we’ve been able to do it all ourselves, with just a little help over the phone from Edströms.”

FT-Produktion’s first cobot solution is based on the “plug and produce” principle, which makes flexible automation easy and profitable for small and medium-sized manufacturers.

The cobot solution includes the following components from the global leaders in modern collaborative robot technology: A UR5 robot arm from Universal Robots, a ProFeeder from EasyRobotics, and a dual gripper solution with two RG2 grippers from OnRobot.

This fully-integrated robot solution offers intuitive operation and programming, with 3D visualisations on the robot arms touchscreen.

The ProFeeder and RG2 are certified by Universal Robots and offered through the Universal Robots+ app platform.