(This is the third and final part of this week’s series on small- and medium-sized manufacturers and robotics.)
A prototype of a robotic arm custom built for a Buffalo-area maker of aviation instrument boards.
Minuteman | Empire
At the Astronics Luminescent Systems Inc. plant near Buffalo, New York, there are quietly intense work stations where some of the company’s most meticulous employees are handcrafting instrument assemblies.
These are custom panels — gauges, switches, knobs and lights — that go into the cockpits of airplanes.
Forerunners in the use of LED, HID and electroluminescent lighting technologies, Astronics LSI makes a range of lighting systems for cockpits, cabins, and exteriors.
These products include avionics panels, light plates, anti-collision and formation lights, emergency cabin lighting and passenger information signs.
If you’ve ever glanced into a cockpit as you board a plane, you’ve probably wondered how in the world pilots can possibly fathom all of the components on the instrument panels.
Try making one of them.
For one thing, the raw LED is too bright and not the preferred aviation color. So Federal Aviation Administration standards require the lights to be toned down; that requires installing miniature filters for proper brightness and color.
These tiny strips get inserted into notebook-sized holes – sometimes as many as 90 holes – in a process that requires tweezers, super glue and the patience of a Tibetan monk.
Typically, the filter-installment phase can take up to 45-minutes – and that’s only one aspect of one panel’s creation. The entire finished panel for one cockpit takes a week.
Astronics’ employees take pride in their fastidiousness but that still doesn’t make what they do any less tedious.
In the previous two articles in this series, we’ve examined how small manufacturers in Western New York are embracing automation partly because they can’t find qualified workers; and the series has also looked at the support system that surrounds these smaller companies, lighting the way forward.
In this third and last article, we are going to look at how one small manufacturer, Astronics, made its first move to bring in a robotics solution.
It all began with the company, with the help of Buffalo Manufacturing Works’ automation engineer Mike Garman, identifying a task most obviously suitable for an automation solution.
The next steps: Garman searched for some possible solutions providers. Some of these were Rochester-based integrators and distributors. Two of them were asked to build a working prototype – a relatively smallish robotic arm to help put tiny light filters into the tiny holes on the control panels. Such a thing could be imagined, but could it be made, and would it work – close to perfectly – and also not cost a small fortune?
Garman described the proposals: “one was pretty much an off the shelf solution that would have to be customized later at the plant; another came up with a prototype that was way too bulky and complex and expensive.”
But one company, Rochester-based Minuteman-Empire Automation Systems, proposed something totally bespoke, affordable and which it could support going forward. The company describes itself as a “technical value provider,” marrying traditional distribution and added-value services. The robotic arm itself would be built at an Auburn Hills, Michigan-based facility operated by Switzerland’s ABB. But the Minuteman-Empire application engineers who customized it for “filter inspection and placement” duty are a one-hour drive away.
Taking input from management and the actual assembly line employees, the Rochester robot whisperers engineered a solution: a small, video-camera-equipped robotic arm, made by ABB, with an ability to do three things: first, pick up, using a pneumatic Schunk gripper, tiny filters from CD-case-sized pallets of them; second, find the center of a hole on the board; and, lastly, stick the filters into place.
Robotic arm sizes can range from as large as two grown men standing on top of one another to as small as … a human arm. This ABB model is on the smaller side. Speed, accuracy and repeatability needs are best met with traditional arms. Collaborative robots (meaning the robot doesn’t have to be locked in a cage for safety reasons) work best in niche applications. The Astronics arm will need to be encased for practical and safety reasons.
At large manufacturing plants, arms tend to be very large and are programmed to do one thing over and over in high volume. Robots excel at repetition and accuracy. Small factories tend to have many various tasks that are done as needed.
Because of the wide variety of Astronics-made instrument assemblies, there’s no singular row-of-holes pattern; there are more than 100 versions. But a vision camera abetted by software allows the customized ABB arm to identify and locate the holes, no matter how they’re arranged. This is not machine-learning technology. Rather, it is “vision guidance” technology. The robot is programmed.
Minuteman-Empire’s Rey Kelly, an applications engineer on the project, helped to submit to Astronics a “proof of concept,” essentially a working prototype that could demonstrate the filter-hole task could be executed.
When the robot arrives sometime in early 2020, Kelly and Garman will be there to help make sure it gets a warm welcome. The robot will then join colleagues and get injected into the workflow, seamlessly.
As for the employees set free from glue and tweezers, they’ll be re-trained for higher-level machine operations, said Astronics’ manufacturing engineer manager, Pat Pierce.
“Astronics LSI will enable machines to do manual tasks like picking and placing components, allowing us to better allocate and train our human resources,” he said.
Repurposed workers will get a reprieve from a tough, tedious task as well as some added responsibilities – supervising the robot.
(This article was the final part of a three-part series; part one can be found HERE and part two, HERE).