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The desire to automate a process and the room required for traditional automation, including guarding, pushed space-restricted Allied Moulded Products Inc. to a new robotic solution. After seeing one in action at a nearby facility, as well as at a trade show, Allied opted for a Universal Robots collaborative robot (cobot) and the company’s new ActiNav autonomous bin-picking kit. Based in Bryan, Ohio, the molder of electrical enclosures and boxes said the space-saving solution allowed it to reduce overtime expenses, move existing workers to more ergonomic tasks and improve consistency in its production process.

Allied manufacturing engineer technician Nate Gilbert says the small footprint was the first requisite for the project. “Floor space here at Allied is pretty limited already, and the thought of having to put up more guarding to accommodate a robot was one of the things that held us back initially. But with collaborative robots being safe around employees, we felt that was a --great way to go.”  (See it in operation—click the video link at the end of this article.)

Universal Robots ActiNav

Given enough parts to work with, the Universal Robots ActiNav bin-picking kit can run unattended.

Deploying a cobot was “a brand-new experience” for the company. Allied Maintenance Group lead Nathan Wells was struck by the user-friendliness of the cobot, in terms of both its presence on the floor and its programming. “It was really exciting to see something that didn’t need to be caged in and that I could walk around while it was doing its job,” Wells says, adding that the UR cobot was one of the easiest robots he’s ever had to program. “You don’t really have to have to put in any specific numbers or anything like that. You just have to move it into place, push a few buttons and there you go, there’s the program.”

Universal Robots’ ActiNav autonomous bin-picking kit synchronously handles vision processing, collision-free motion planning, and autonomous real-time robot control. Included in the kit are an Autonomous Motion Module, 3D sensor (placed above bin), ActiNav user interface, Alignment Marker, a Universal Robots e-Series cobot (UR5e or UR10e), and all the necessary cables, screws, and brackets.

“With collaborative robots being safe around employees, we felt that was a great way to go.” 


Part Recognition

To make the ActiNav able to recognize the parts it would handle, “We used a CAD file of the product, loaded it into the ActiNav, and it took that and used it to register parts out of the bin. It was very easy to load in,” Wells says. “You just put it on a USB and plug it into the controller.” To teach the ActiNav the bin it would be picking from, users simply touch the robot to each part of the bin.

Universal Robots ActiNav

Once it’s taught the dimensions of the bin and given a CAD file of the part to be picked, the ActiNav system can adjust its orientation to suit the part. 

The new process begins with stock handlers unloading a full crate of parts into a dumpster. Once activated, the dumpster empties its parts into the ActiNav bin. ActiNav picks up parts—for example, electric junction-box housings—and places them in proper orientation on a narrow, railed conveyor. Orientation is key to facilitate secondary operations on the boxes. The conveyor then brings the parts to a small, caged work cell that has a rotary table with multiple stations. At each station, a fabrication operation is applied until an out-conveyor dumps finished parts into a large bin.

All this time, ActiNav has to make some decisions autonomously, including which part to pick, how to place it in the correct orientation and how to identify incorrect parts, place them aside and continue with its main task. If the bin is kept full, ActiNav can go all day without operator intervention.

Fence Free

While conventional automation requires mats, fences and enclosures to protect workers, cobots are designed to operate in close proximity to people. In addition to lending flexibility to where the cobot is placed, Allied says this also means that if a worker has to clear an error, there isn’t an entire shutdown procedure to follow.

Using the old tortoise-and-hare fable as an analogy, Allied Moulded compares the ActiNav to the tortoise, delivering a steady, consistent effort with no breaks. While human operator “hares” may work faster, they do so with less consistency over the course of a day and take breaks.

Universal Robots ActiNav

The ActiNav bin-picking system boasts easy user programming.

Deploying ActiNav has allowed Allied Moulded to “upskill” operators to become trainers and mentors on the system and contribute design ideas for future automation projects. In that spirit, Allied Moulded says it’s “well on its way” to moving the ActiNav to any machine in its facility and set it up for any part style. Targets include failed vibratory-bowl projects, as well as loading parts from a bin directly onto a round table that will rotate around to stations, instead of loading them onto a conveyor.