Increasing market complexity dynamics drive companies to be loose in their forecast and prompt in innovating products and processes for Parts Feeding Systems.
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If the traditional manufacturing strategy was producing with the least cost and the best quality, now gaining maximum organizational and manufacturing flexibility and being responsive in an ever-changing competitive context are essential.
Out of the manufacturing processes, assembly has always been identified as the most prominent for costs and complexity, and parts feeding is largely responsible for that.
A few methods have been tried to feed parts automatically or manually: each one of those have advantages and drawbacks.
In this article we will look at four methods to feed parts in an industrial setting.
Operator Manually Loading Part into a System
If batches aren’t large enough for dedicated automation equipment, or the products are so delicate that a bulk feeding approach wouldn’t be satisfying, then they can be manually organized into workpiece trays or racks in a predictable pattern.
By having products organized this way, the complexity of the assembly process is reduced, but this comes with a high cost: preparing customized trays or racks is not a sustainable way to manage frequent product innovations and changes.
Alternatively, parts kitting is another manual assembly process frequently adopted when production comes in small lots and high mix.
Kitting minimizes the manufacturing footprint in the production plant and simplifies material handling, but it can be manual intensive labor on both the kit organization and the part handling sides.
Vibratory Bowl Feeders
The traditional systems for feeding parts automatically are vibratory bowl feeders.
These are customized on a single product, and their operating concept relies on the product’s shape and mechanical behavior.
Since they are specifically designed on the component they handle, the manufacturing team must have as many bowl feeders as the number of product types to be made. In this system, parts feeding is based on having specialized feeders for each product.
Vibratory bowl feeders are the most common machines used to feed disordered small parts to the production lines, but changing and tuning them also takes time, and discourages performing frequent product changeovers. Sometimes this kind of system can be very noisy, and develop quite a footprint.
For the reasons above, there is a growing demand for robotic picking solutions where the products come in bulk: either in bins or boxes.
This recent trend aims to transform traditional manufacturing sites into smart and robotic production plants where small batches are managed with the very same efficiency of mass production.
Among these bulk feeding solutions is bin picking.
The purpose of bin picking is to automatically empty a bin full of bulk products and sort them by using a 3D vision system with either an industrial or a collaborative robot.
This is a very convenient alternative solution for all the manufacturing processes that can afford to store workpieces randomly inside metal containers instead of organizing them in trays.
As a result of the improvements in vision and gripping technologies, 3D vision based bin-picking systems have been proven to be reliable and robust with most geometries, but they still have some limitations.
They only work well with larger, geometrically non-complex, symmetric parts.
If the products have a lot of different features, present many surfaces in their stable state, are made of non-rigid materials, or are inclined to tangle, then bin-picking will be challenging to deploy.
These systems also require many different pictures to be captured by an operator to match the possible part rest states, and the calculation process may take some time.
Flexible Feeding System
The most versatile solution for picking & placing parts in bulk is using flexible parts feeders. A flex-feeder is a vision-based system that is paired with either a collaborative or an industrial robot to accomplish parts feeding tasks automatically.
With this approach, the products lay on the flat surface of the flexible feeder and 2D vision system detects the parts’ orientation and sends their coordinates to the robot for the picking.
These systems can easily perform a product changeover: sometimes even automatically, if a quick-emptying function is equipped.
Robotic feeding systems can handle a very wide variety of shapes, sizes, and materials of components on surfaces with different colors, textures, and degrees of adhesion.
For example, sizes ranging from 1 to 250 mm can be handled from a single flexfeeder unit without any issue, in a wide variety of applications, like:
- Tray/belt loading
- Machine tending
- Quality inspection
- Kit preparation
This type of feeder system maximizes its efficiency by making the dropping, separating, and picking processes completely independent and simultaneous.
Some kinds of flexible feeders can handle different types of components at the same time (with surfaces separated in multiple sectors) and work in continuous tracking mode for even better performances.
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Robotic flexible part feeding systems markets
The feed rates reached by these systems is so high that they have been employed in several industries, for example:
- Automotive Components assembly systems
- Cosmetics and personal care parts assembly
- Medical components assembly system
- Electronic parts and equipment feeding system
- Metal parts feeding system
- Plastic parts assembly
The continuous possibility of repurposing these systems for new components makes them incredibly cost-effective, as their users can have a single flex feeder for many different parts, and reuse them for a virtually endless series of projects.
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