The concept of the fully automated toolroom has moved from wish list to workable reality now that virtually every aspect of tool management, cleaning, assembly, presetting and delivery can happen without much if any human interv
ention. The science behind this former science fiction relies on multiple technologies that must work together as a seamless solution, integrating tool storage, robotics, machining cells, programming and tool preparation/presetting.
Equipment manufacturers have taken up that integration challenge, especially because of the enticing advantages that toolroom automation offers their customers. Through unattended lights-out toolroom operations, shops can add shifts, productivity and profits without increasing their existing workforce. Automation frees shop employees from the drudgery of completing and finessing tool setups while it enables less-skilled workers to succeed in completing more-complex workflow tasks without much additional training.
Tool storage systems are the first key to the fully automated toolroom. Tool-handling automation must be able to identify and address all the locations within a vertical storage system, making it easy to find any tool that a job requires. As an engineer begins a job, the tool management system locates the items associated with the processes involved, places those tools in a carousel and moves them to a tray, which then proceeds by mobile robotic cart to cleaning and assembly stations.
Robotic automation inserts a clean tool into a collet, assembles and presets it and loads that assembly into a toolholder that then loads into a mobile cart of finished tools. The cart travels on to a specific work area, following GPS signals or optically discernable lines on the floor.
Once the cart reaches the correct workstation, machine-cell robotics move relevant tools into tool storage carousels. After part machining, automation removes the tools from the cell and loads them back into another cart for a trip to a disassembly station. The same system also can automate regrinding processes.
All these steps require equipment compatibility because to load, preset and unload tools from an automatic clamping unit, a machine must conform to the automation system. In the development of its automated tool presetting concept, toolholder OEM REGO-FIX used its powRgrip clamping system toolholders and a modified PGU-9500 automatic clamping unit to work with a Universal Robots articulated robot arm and a Zoller presetter. Modifying the clamping unit meant adding pneumatic cylinders; altering door designs, valve and button-control systems; and wiring the system to a central terminal block to which the robotic PLC attached. With those changes, the robot could signal the REGO-FIX PGU-9500 to perform the press-in and press-out cycles for the powRgrip tool loading/unloading process, move holders to the presetter for tool-offset measurement and place completed tool assemblies into a finished tray.
Obviously, a constant flow of data lies at the heart of the automated toolroom, as sensors count the tools in a given location and RFID tags store data about each tool. Unfortunately, today’s heat-shrink type tool holding systems can complicate the assembly stage of automated tool prep.
By the time an automated system writes measurement data to the RFID chip on a tool in a heat-shrink toolholder and the assembly arrives in a robot’s cart, the tool cools and shrinks by several microns. To account for that dimensional change, the system either must wait for the tool to cool before measuring it or use a complex compensation formula to account for the difference in size. The wait increases production time; the compensation formula makes the process more difficult and more likely to result in errors that translate to workpiece rejects. To avoid these problems entirely, shops can choose a mechanically based clamping system such as REGO-FIX powRgrip, which yields ready-to-use cutter/toolholder assemblies with or without automation.
A fully automated toolroom needs to extend beyond the shop floor and tap into ordering systems to assure a consistent stock of tools on hand. For example, a robot can count the assembled tools in a storage system and determine that with only 15 three-flute 0.500”-diameter end mills on hand, the shop needs to order 10 more to reach its desired inventory level.
The complexities of these systems mean that for the foreseeable future, extensive toolroom automation will remain the type of project that big companies undertake, given their needs to produce large volumes of parts with shrinking workforces and their ability to invest in the necessary capital equipment. That capital investment in automation technology will become a workforce substitute, and at least some of the developments that result from these large systems will trickle down to smaller companies. The full benefits may not reach small to mid-sized shops immediately, but the technology will get there sooner than many would have expected even a few years ago.
The physical parts of a toolroom automation system are important, of course, because if they fail to operate properly, the entire process fails with them. Programming remains the most important component of the system, given its critical role in connecting the dots and communicating with a diverse array of products. Many of these automation systems mix products from various manufacturers into unique combinations, so customers likely will develop their own programming code or buy complete systems from collaborations of specialist suppliers. Some shops also may choose to implement their own versions of certain parts of the system, including standardized tool trays. In these cases, the shop can ship empty trays to a tool manufacturer, who pre-wraps tools in place, locks them into special cases and ships them back on skids.
With the fully automated toolroom on the horizon, machine manufacturers eventually may alter their equipment designs accordingly. When the automated toolroom becomes, in essence, the machine’s tool storage area, high-capacity, multi-tool carousels become less meaningful machine options because a robotic cart can deliver a constant supply of fresh tools to the machine and pick up used ones.
The fully automated toolroom may have even more profound effects on how shops buy and use solid round cutting tools. Instead of purchasing tool inserts individually, shops may buy pre-assembled heads, shifting the manual assembly labor to the supplier.
Shops will save time, increase process accuracy and bridge at least some skilled-labor gaps when the fully automated toolroom arrives in the near future. The technology it brings accomplishes many goals and adds the promise of greater efficiency. As equipment manufacturers step up to collaborate in building these automated systems, the innovations they create will enhance workflow and profits for shops of all sizes. REGO-FIX has shown the importance of toolholding systems in streamlining toolroom automation with technologies that remove production delays and simplify accurate tool measurement.