What Is Your Robot Doing?

Reviewing, understanding the critical role that automation plays in metalcasting

Metalcasting is a fundamental industrial process, and it holds a critical place in multiple manufacturing supply chains, for various component parts required to build cars, aircraft, trucks, and machinery for energy markets, mining, railways, and much more. According to Transparency Market Research, the global metalcasting market is likely to expand at a CAGR of 4.25% during 2017-2026. By the end of that forecast period, the market will be worth $202.8 billion. 

In parallel to this general expansion is the internal development of metalcasting operations, including the expanding role of automation in producing castings by various processes. Although the industry has been somewhat resistant to automation in the past, the emerging relevance of Industry 4.0 means that is rapidly making its way into foundries and diecasting operation. Here’s how:

Making metalcasting safer — For years, the metalcasting industry has earned a reputation for workplace and occupational hazards, in part due to the risks to personal safety from heat, airborne particulates, heavy loading and handling, electrical currents, molten metal, moving machinery, and more.

A typical day in a metalcasting plant involves individual tasks related to trimming and melting, to molding and casting, to grinding and finishing. Workers often are required to operate heavy machinery under extreme heat and noise, with fly-ash and oxides of nitrogen and sulfur getting released in the environment. Apart from long-term illnesses, these factors are also responsible for workplace accidents that may result in fatalities.

However, automation is helping the industry to address these risks. Today, many manual tasks involving lifting, loading, retrieving, and inserting heavy objects are being replaced by industrial robots or robotic arms.

Many metalcasting plants are using customized material handling systems for various processes, like ladle handling, pouring, grinding, part handling, even complete process control.

Some of the common handling systems include cross shuttles, robotic conveyor loading, automated crossbar press, robotic fettling cells, and individually controlled feeders. These systems often use robotic wrists and arms made from special heat-resistant steel and guided by advanced algorithms, allowing them to operate with precision in extreme temperatures.

Increased efficiency, lower labor costs — Globalization has intensified the competition in various industries, and the foundry sector is no exception. Competing with global players means dealing with the ever-increasing demand to manufacture quality products at compatible costs.

Unfortunately, being dependent on manual handling, maintaining product quality has always been a challenge. Relying mainly on unskilled labor also leads to increased chances for mishaps and accidents. That’s where automation makes a difference.

Using sturdy and precision-oriented robots is helping to reduce the human imprint in the various processes, reducing the chances of manual errors. In turn, this is helping foundry owners, operators, and managers to oversee manufacturing processes that achieve consistent product quality. Automation also means it’s possible to handle larger product volumes with a minimal but skilled workforce.

In other words, automation is lowering production costs for an industry that has long been plagued by ever-increasing wage rates, maintenance costs, and a growing shortage of skilled workforce. Although there is an upfront cost associated with redesigning the manufacturing process, buying new equipment or upgrading the existing systems, and training workers, implementing automation typically results in substantial long-term competitive advantages.

Gearing up to be globally connected — The Smart foundry concept is similar to what we recognize in Smart appliances, Smart homes, and Smart factories. Smart foundries are data-driven manufacturing units capable of adjusting their production process as required to address changing demand, revised performance standards, updated analytical results, or any other newly determined objective. So, whether the operator gets a request to make hooks for wire rope slings or a propeller for a ship, it would be possible to reconfigure programs and systems to make that happen in a single metalcasting installation.

Automation establishes the foundation for building data-driven foundries. Automated material handling systems combined with technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), advanced sensors, control platforms, and machine learning to make it possible to design Smart foundries.

In a Smart foundry, when an order for a casting is received, it goes to a production control center. All manufacturing functions and processes are monitors, and also are interconnected, so that newly input information is processed throughout the organization. An advanced enterprise system (ERP) communicates any necessary data about different process parameters, such as metallurgical characteristics and dimensional accuracies, production rates, and machine performance. Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) move parts from one phases of the production and one area of the foundry to the next.

There are very few Smart foundries today, but the industry recognizes the prerogative, and it is adapting to it. Rising consumer demand and continuous exposure to new technologies are fueling the transition from traditional plants to Smart foundries.

Automation is changing metalcasting, and manufacturing overall, for the better. It is not only making the workplace safer but improving metalcasting efficiency. But most important, it is laying a strong foundation for building Smart foundries that can adapt to consumer demands and specifications. But note that manufacturing automation is still in its infancy. Technology providers, foundry owners, and material handling providers are likely to continue coordinating their efforts to speed up automation. It’s the Smart approach.
Vernon Glick is a marketing executive active in the manufacturing sector. Contact him at vernonglick@gmail.com

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