Brad Kuvin Brad Kuvin
Editorial Director

Automate the Pressroom with No Upfront Cost?

April 1, 2022

Polar Hardware Manufacturing Co., established more than 100 years ago in Chicago, IL, fabricates a broad range of door and truck body hardware—think heavy-duty cam locks and latches, truck-trailer hinges, handles, and rope rings, for example. It’s a broad product set, but Polar’s experience and stable of machines make that breadth of production possible. However, until recently the firm had no automation deployed on its plant floor, “due to cost,” says plant manager Jose Figueroa. “We simply couldn’t justify the investment needed to automate with robotics.

cobot-feeds-bar-to-press“A few years ago, our attitude changed, and we really felt that if we didn’t automate, we would not be able to remain in business,” Figueroa continues. “We have implemented lean manufacturing principles and found other ways to improve productivity, but with small returns. After looking at automation solutions at FABTECH and other tradeshows, cobot arms really looked promising, so we educated ourselves and finally decided to give it a try. We had no real consistency among our presses and operators; jobs ran at different production rates from press to press and among different operators. We felt that cobots tending the presses might improve throughput and production consistency.”

Old-School Manufacturer with a Fresh Automation Approach

Polar’s decision to take the leap into robotic automation became a reality in 2019 when Figueroa and his team surveyed the cobot landscape, impressed with the ability to, with little training, program and deploy them. However, he says, investing in automation without any prior experience still seemed daunting and difficult for company ownership to justify. Enter Formic Technologies, Inc., an automation partner that not only serves as project manager, but also purchases all of the equipment, performs any custom engineering required, takes care of all installation costs, and continues to maintain uptime and performance over the life of the system. The concept: Robotics as a Service. Formic’s customers—Polar in this case—pay an hourly rate to use the cobot setup.

“The Formic solution really makes sense for us from an ROI perspective,” Figueroa says. For its initial project, stamping-press tending, Formic paired a Universal Robots UR5e cobot with grippers, a touchscreen HMI, wheels for mobility and an input magazine to position sheet metal blanks for the cobot to then deliver to the press.

grab-handles“We focused on low hanging fruit,” Figueroa adds, "very-high-volume repetitive jobs fit for automated press tending.”

For integration and installation support, Formic partnered with Chicago-based DesignHawk Innovations LLC, which started by conducting a proof-of-concept analysis for Polar. Then Formic purchased the equipment and set it up on the Polar floor. Job one: stamping grab handles, which Polar manufactures by the tens of thousands in a range of sizes. 

“DesignHawk integrated the cobot to the press,” Figueroa explains. It also rewired the press control so that the cobot’s control system actuates the press, signaling it when to stroke based on when the robot moves in and out of the die space—first to load the blank and then to remove a stamped part.

“We didn’t start making payments until it was proven it would work,” Figueroa adds. “That didn’t take long. It’s truly been a turnkey project for us.”

A Few Challenges

Like any automation system, designing a solution for Polar required overcoming a few challenges. First, the press, a 150-ton model, is 30 years old, so it requires the use of external sensors to detect motion and work seamlessly with the cobot. Additionally, this press runs different part sizes (handles range from 8 to 36 in. long)—some that the cobot can accommodate and some that it can’t. 

“That’s one reason why we wanted the cobot mobile and mounted on wheels,” Figueroa says, “so that it can be moved away from the press when we want to operate it manually. And, when the press recently went down for maintenance, we were able to wheel the cobot setup over to a nearby 220-ton press and set it up to run production there. We’re also wiring a third press—one that punches holes in the stamped handles—to accept the cobot.

“We were so backed up on this job,” Figueroa continues, “that we regularly ran overtime shifts to keep up with production. Now, with the cobot, installed in September 2021, that press produces 85 parts/hr., compared to 40 to 60 parts/hr. manually. That equates to nearly a 50-percent reduction in ‘labor’ cost, as we’re only paying an hourly rate of $8 for the cobot—with increased throughput and production consistency.”

In operation, an operator loads the cobot’s magazine feeder—developed by DesignHawk—with blanks of 5⁄8-in.-dia. bar stock cut to length. The feeder presents the blanks in a programmed position to allow the cobot to grab it consistently. The cobot then places the blank in the press and, once the cobot arm clears the die space, its controller signals the press to close—one hit per part to flatten the handle ends. The stamped parts then move to a secondary operation for hole punching.

“The operator that used to tend this press is more than happy to no longer have to feed blanks and remove parts from the press,” says Figueroa. “Instead, he loads blanks into the bar-feed magazine, then can step away help out in packaging or elsewhere in the plant. And, from management’s perspective, we’re happy to offer operators training on the cobots to add to their skill sets and knowledge base.

“Automation and robotics are the future,” he adds. “It’s happening, and we want to prepare our workforce.”

Production-Data Dashboard

In addition to the equipment and integration, Formic also provided Figueroa and other managers at Polar with an online dashboard accessible from a laptop, tablet or smartphone to monitor production of the cobot-tended press. And, once the cobot proved its ability to work reliably, Polar decided to add a second Formic-funded cobot, this one to tend a resistance-welding machine.

“We believe that this second cobot will cost us about $11/hr.,” Figueroa says, “supporting a spot-welding machine used to fabricate hinge brackets. The cobot loads a turntable fixture with 10 assemblies.”

With each of its cobot cells, after running them for 4 yr. Polar has the option to purchase them from Formic. 

“By then,” says Figueroa, “we’ll be well-versed in programming and maintaining the equipment, and at adapting the cobots for additional jobs. Until then we can take advantage of the expertise provided by Formic and DesignHawk. We’ve been able to go from zero to fully automated on two high-volume jobs, painlessly.” MF

Industry-Related Terms: Blank, Cam, Die, Fixture, Grippers, Hardware, Model, Run, Stroke
View Glossary of Metalforming Terms


See also: Universal Robots

Technologies: Pressroom Automation


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