One of the bigger trends of robotics in manufacturing is the automation of ancillary post processes that come after primary manufacturing. These processes could be washing/cleaning, deburring, inspection, and part marking/identification. Until more recently the automation focus was primarily related to the main manufacturing process. If there was additional robot time, adding equipment to automate one of these other processes was not a consideration. Since industry is becoming more familiar with robotics/automation, the benefits of automating these processes are being realized.
Part cleaning is a natural expansion to an automated manufacturing cell. Once the machined part exits the machine, it is easy to place a bucket of water or cleaning solution in the cell to have the robot rinse the chips and coolant from the part. Today however, more manufacturers are expanding the cleaning process from passively rinsing, to utilizing the articulation of the robot to position high-pressure nozzles in confined places to actively blow the chips and coolant out. This process can be quicker and more reliable because the robot is actively attacking difficult to reach areas that were previously inaccessible. Automation can also be used for passing the part between several different cleaning solutions or even in nontraditional cleaning processes such as vapor degreasing, where the robot is used to move the nozzle around the part to achieve the cleaning.
Deburring has also become very popular in automation. Traditionally, robotic deburring can take on the form of moving a spinning carbide burr around the edges of a part, or bringing the part to a wire wheel and/or buffing wheel to remove the burrs. Using a robot to apply a deburring media is also being applied; this could be an aggressive process such as bead blasting, to a gentler process; for example, using very fine power such as sodium bicarbonate to remove the burrs on more delicate materials. More nontraditional forms of deburring such as acoustic emission and cryogenic deburring, where the robot provides the motion required to perform the process, are now also being deployed. For example, using a cold air gun or an acoustic emitter to move around the part.
Automating measuring equipment is another growth area in robotics. This can include loading a CMM, vision system, or even special gaging. Having the robot automatically load and unload this equipment can save many hours of labor. It is important to have clean parts for inspection, so it is logical to integrate part cleaning into an inspection cell.
Whether for stamping, pin stamping, or laser marking, part marking is another postprocess operation that is very suitable for automation. One advantage of loading/unloading a laser marking machine with a robot is that the entire robot area can be contained within the laser cabinet to prevent users from being exposed to laser light. This allows loading and unloading without a door, simplifying the process and reducing cycle time.
After these postprocess operations are completed, robots can also be used for the packing of parts. Packing could be facilitated with reusable containers to shuttle or move parts to the next operation, or the parts could be packed in boxes for direct shipment to customers.
Previously, one of the barriers of automating these processes had been cost. Typically, higher value is placed on the labor used for loading an expensive piece of equipment such as a CNC machine, instead of utilizing robots in a deburring process. However, deburring could be classified as a skilled position. Shops have seen the benefits of automation in conventional operations and they are now looking for other ways to apply the technology.