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SCARA robot and Flexibowl automated cell


RARUK Automation has supplied Plymouth-based Oakmount Control Systems with a new FlexiBowl® parts feeder and Shibaura Machine SCARA robot. The two automated systems are now working in unison at a customer of Oakmount, where they are feeding, picking and placing a medical product into individual plastic packaging trays. Previously performed by a human operative, the end user is not only enjoying a faster, more repeatable process, but has redeployed its labour resource to a more value-added task.

Oakmount Control Systems has come a long way in a short space of time. Founded in 2002 by Phil Partridge, the company began by specialising in the design and manufacture of industrial control systems. Just 18 years later and Oakmount has recently completed its latest growth-fuelled relocation into 36,883ft2 premises on a 1.7 acre site in Plymouth.

Over the years Oakmount has expanded its horizons into the design and supply of turnkey automated systems for specific applications. The company often gets involved at every stage of the project, from conceptual discussions and design, through precision tooling, fabrication and assembly, to installation, testing, commissioning and aftersales support. In a recent example of its expertise, the company helped a major manufacturer of medical products to evolve a laborious manual packaging operation into a fully automated, high-volume production process.

“The customer had seen a simple pick and place video of ours on LinkedIn, and subsequently made an enquiry,” says John Dawe, Business Development Manager – Factory Automation at Oakmount Control Systems. “It transpired they had an extremely repetitive task that involved someone continuously placing medical products into thermoformed trays. The parts are small and awkward, and it was easy for the operative to mistakenly put two in one tray or miss a tray altogether, or drop products on the floor. All these things add up and cost time. Automation was an obvious way to improve the process and make far better use of that person elsewhere.”

In the first instance, cycle time studies of the existing operation set a goal for the proposed automated solution. Armed with this information, Oakmount teamed up with long-term technical partner RARUK Automation to discuss the optimum way of reducing the cycle time and improving process repeatability. The proposal consisted of a FlexiBowl parts feeder and Shibaura Machine THP700 SCARA robot.

“RARUK Automation used Shibaura Machine’s simulation software to evaluate the optimum cycle time that could be achieved. The software allows CAD drawings to be integrated and therefore get real-time simulations, which in this case turned out to be faster than the manual operation,” explains Mr Dawe. “We’d used FlexiBowl before, but this was our first project with a SCARA robot, so it was good to get advice from RARUK Automation. We’ve had a strong relationship with them for the past five years and worked on numerous projects together. Once the simulation phase was complete we returned to our customer with the proposal, the estimated cycle time and the cost. They were pleased with our recommendation and placed the order.”

FlexiBowl is an innovative flexible parts feeder that is compatible with any robot and vision system. A single FlexiBowl can handle entire families of parts within the range of 1-250mm and 1-250g. The system’s lack of dedicated tooling and its easy-to-use, intuitive programming allow product changeovers in a matter of seconds.

The high-speed, high-cycle SCARA robot specified by RARUK Automation is the THP700, which offers a 700mm reach and a maximum payload of 10kg. THP series SCARA robots are capable of up to 120 cycles per minute in 24-hour continuous operation.

Working together in a cleanroom environment at Oakmount’s customer, the hopper-fed FlexiBowl feeds the awkwardly shaped medical products on to the rotating flat surface of the FlexiBowl. Oakmount positioned a camera-based vision system above the FlexiBowl’s picking area, which then instructs the robot which parts are available to pick. The SCARA robot then picks up the medical products individually using a vacuum pad and places each one into the required plastic packaging pocket as they emerge from the thermoforming machine. As the trays fill (five trays per row) they move along the production line to a vacuum bagging operation, after which further Oakmount-supplied vision systems confirm that the parts and labels are in place. A single control panel – also designed and manufactured by Oakmount – oversees the entire operation.

There are two variants of the medical product that require packaging. However, the system devised by Oakmount has been purpose-designed to accommodate both with an extremely short changeover time. The only aspects that need to change when switching products are the robot program and the image of the part to pick.

“Installed and commissioned in June 2020, the system has been running all day, every day,” concludes Mr Dawe. “Fortunately, robots do not need breaks, do not call sick and do not make mistakes, so our customer has taken a big step forward with this project. Aside from the inherent accuracy and continuous placement of parts that the system provides, our customer has been able to release their operator to undertake more technical tasks and reduce any risk of RSI due to repetitive action. Labour has therefore been costed out of this particular process.”

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