Machine tool automation

Jon Lawson

Intended to boost the productivity of machining centres and reduce labour costs in factories, a new range of workpiece handling cells is now available.

The systems are designed to allow components to be clamped manually onto pallets, automatically loaded into store and subsequently retrieved for robotic transfer into and out of three-, four- and five-axis prismatic metalcutting machines. Such arrangements are ideal for long periods of unattended and lights-out running and hence for extracting maximum value from investment in machine tools when producing parts in small to medium size batches.

The cells are manufactured by Engineering Data in France and sold in the UK and Ireland by 1st Machine Tool Accessories. The modular handling systems, which feature easy access for maintenance, are said to increase production output from non-pallet-change machining centres by up to 50%. The control software and touchscreen graphical user interface, which can be operated wirelessly from a tablet, are especially easy to use and allow deskilling of the machine loading function. Half a day’s training is all that is needed for an operator to become conversant with a system.

Standard customised equipment

Noel Boumediene started Engineering Data 27 years ago to design and manufacture special fixtures. Mainly hydraulically actuated and with the accent on complex turnkey workholding solutions, they are used widely in the automotive and aerospace sectors as well as in the rail industry and general engineering. In 2012, the company introduced robotic loading and unloading of components and the initiative quickly mushroomed into the production of different automated pallet handling cells under the trade name EasyBox. There are already dozens of installations in factories across France and elsewhere.

The first model, L80, appeared on the market in 2015. It has a linear rail-mounted robot capable of feeding up to six machining centres with workpieces of 80kg maximum weight. There are now five styles of EasyBox cell, including a version with rotary robot motion for feeding one or two machining centres. Maximum handling capacities range from 250kg down to 30kg.

They are all based on standard equipment that is customised with workpiece handling and clamping to suit each user’s specific needs, leveraging the long experience of Engineering Data in this area. Quick-acting SMED (single-minute exchange of die) tools integrated into the company’s EasyLock modular zero-point clamping systems allow rapid repositioning to within 5 microns. EasyClamp self-centring vices are also available.

A recent product introduction is the EasyBox T30, a compact system with a footprint of just 2m2 that can be configured to feed a machine from the left, right or front. Two versions are available, for storing 42 or 64 pallets. They are equipped with a three-axis robot capable of handling components up to 200 x 200 x 180mm and a maximum load of 30kg including workpiece, fixture and pallet.

The single load/unload station is positioned at an ergonomic height at the front of the store for convenient workpiece clamping and unclamping.
The adjacent touchscreen panel for operating the robot is easily interfaced with all major types of machine tool control including Heidenhain, Siemens, Fanuc and Mazatrol. Most recently, an EasyBox T100 was introduced with a 5m2 footprint, a storage capacity of 32 pallets and a maximum load capacity of 100kg.

Machine utilisation increased

One French company that has invested in EasyBox technology is SAH Leduc, which designs and manufactures nearly a quarter of a million custom-made hydraulic cylinders annually, 24 hours a day, at a 27,000m2 factory 20km from Nantes. To keep production in France while remaining competitive, the company turned to Engineering Data to increase the productivity of its machining centres.

Thierry Hervy, industrial and production manager explains, “Our single-acting, double-acting and telescopic cylinders are diverse because they are found almost everywhere, on mobile machinery in particular.

“Our engineering team uses Catia CAD systems to design the products and then finite element analysis and fluid dynamics calculations to optimise them. They come in all sizes up to a maximum stroke of 7m and with a diameter of up to 250mm.”

Hervy adds: “Whether one-offs or series production is involved, our strength is to analyse a customer’s specification together with a 3D model of their machinery and to adapt the hydraulic cylinder to suit the intended application, be it in agriculture, construction, civil engineering, industrial handling, transport or the marine industry.”

He says that previously, the machining centres in the factory were underutilised and therefore inefficient due to spindle idle time during workpiece loading and unloading. Additionally, the operator had to be in attendance for most of the time.

EasyBox L80 automation equipment was an obvious choice when a new five-axis machining centre was installed. Four extra hours of production is gained every night, leading to return on investment that Hervy estimates will be less than five years.

He says: “After the rapid development phase and start-up was completed, the automation significantly reduced the number of man-hours required for production and the productivity gain is very important.

“With this system, once the set-up and programming for a new batch run are finished, the operator simply deposits each workpiece on a pallet, switches to the correct program and the machine starts producing autonomously.”

Workholding devices specific to SAH Leduc’s production were also developed and manufactured by Engineering Data. Patricia Bouger at Engineering Data comments, “Our strength is not only to bring an automated solution for loading and unloading machining centres that is accessible to all and whose rapid installation on site does not disrupt the workshop, but also to propose a solution that encompasses positioning, clamping and supervision of parts.

“We develop and assemble each solution in our Fondettes factory and test the functionality so that when it reaches the customer, after installation and commissioning – which takes from three to five days – and a short period of operator training, the cell is ready to start producing immediately.”

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