Quick-fire validation testing by engineers at the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) helped put the UK’s largest manufacturer of magnetic material on the right path in finding a robot for automating some production processes.
Sheffield-based Anchor Magnets, founded in 1984, manufactures an extensive range of magnetic products for retail, print, automotive, signage, industrial, office, home, warehousing and magnetic fixing. With machines running daily, it has the capability to produce up to six miles of flexible magnetic extrusion material each working day. Were it to do this five days a week for 52 weeks a year, it would produce enough magnetic extrusion to reach from its facility in Sheffield to Moscow.
Engineers from the AMRC’s Factory 2050 visited the company’s Darnall Road headquarters to determine which of its processes could benefit from optimisation through automation to increase throughput and free up staff for higher-value added tasks.
Warren Turner, managing director of Anchor Magnets, said: “It is fantastic that AMRC’s Factory 2050 were able to fund and test technology on our behalf, creating real-life scenarios using our materials. De-risking this part of the feasibility study and having access to specialist skills and resources is an enormous help to SMEs like Anchor Magnets.”
The main challenge for the AMRC, which is part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, was to develop a process that allowed Anchor Magnets to pick and place C profile and other extrusions into the required packaging. This stacking process is currently completed manually, requiring an operator to perform the task. In light of this, Anchor Magnets see significant benefit automating the entire process to allow for magnet stacking during lights out, whilst reutilising the assigned operators to perform more dextrous/cognitive tasks.
An entry level robot called EVA, manufactured by Automata was used to help validate this process. A physical demonstrator was created at the AMRC’s Factory 2050 to verify the robot and its capabilities for the specific stacking operation and after testing it was concluded that the components were too difficult to manipulate in a repeatable manner using a robot and mechanical gripper.
“This validation was completed within a free, five day assist which in turn gave Anchor Magnets some insight into robotics and its application, plus the added benefit of saving the purchase cost of the robot to determine validity in house.
Matt Bacon, SME project manager, said: “Anchor Magnets wanted to look at introducing entry level robotics into its manufacturing process and the EVA seemed a good fit due to its price point of £5,000 and ease of use. We already had the capability here at the AMRC and agreed to carry out some validation testing for the company with regards to automating the stacking process for its magnetic strips, using EVA.
“An important part of our role in working with SMEs is to de-risk technologies for them. The AMRC is perfectly kitted out and equipped for this kind of quick validation – we have the robot, we can do the programming, we have the right electrics. Ultimately we take away the financial risk for the business which for a small company can be invaluable.”
Warren added: “The AMRC were able to demonstrate the packing capabilities of a low-cost robot for magnetic materials. Whilst this particular make and model will not be suitable for our environment and products it has given us some great ideas of what may be possible for us to develop.”