This Automation Is a Gateway to Lights-out Manufacturing


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This article was sponsored by Murata Machinery USA, Inc. | Muratec USA, a Thomas Verified manufacturer of automated machinery and machine tools.

“Automation is what we do. It’s in our blood,” says Jeff Holtzapple, the North American sales manager for Murata Machinery USA, Inc. | Muratec USA.

The automated machine tools manufacturer recently launched a new bin-picking automation solution in partnership with Universal Robots (UR) that is being heralded the “next level in automation for turning machines.” The Muratec infeed device features ActiNav™ flexible machine loading with real-time autonomous motion control software, intelligent 3D Vision, and UR’s world-leading cobots.  

Doug Schrotenboer, a senior mechanical design engineer for Murata Machinery, explains the multi-faceted advantages: “Cobots have the ability to reliably pick random, intermixed parts from the bin, load them in a machine in a set position at a set time to make finished parts, and then put them into inventory — without ever being touched by an operator. This enhances speed, reduces processing mistakes, and fills skills gaps because now employers can train their employees for higher, more advanced positions.”

Murata Machinery USA, Inc., is more than a global leader in automated turning solutions. As a subsidiary of Murata Machinery Ltd — which was established in 1935 and is Muratec’s only manufacturing brand — it is part of a legacy of automated material handling systems, cleanroom automation, machine tool and fabrication technology, and textile machinery. Yet, it is distinct in developing solutions specifically for the North American market from its headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina.   

“We’ve been a huge part of automation in key industries like automotive,” says Holtzapple. Murata’s work also extends to agriculture, aircraft, apparel, bearings, civil aerospace, medical, oil and gas, pharmaceutical, retail, solar, and valves and fittings.

“Murata is very differentiated from the competition because we can automate across the entire supply chain,” explains Christine Spiegel, strategic marketing director at Murata Machinery. “Ultimately, what we’re doing for our customers is we’re helping them make it, move it, store it, and service it for the life of the machine.”

David Beltran — Murata Machinery’s division operations and engineering manager — Holtzapple, Schrotenboer, and Spiegel discussed why some manufacturers still have automation adoption hesitancy despite its benefits to industry, how their partnership with UR is helping them solve customers’ needs, and the new machine coming from Japan that’s going to be a “game-changer” for them.

Discover the Muratec Infeed Device with Universal Robots’ Cobot Models

  • This automation is a gateway to unattended operations and lights-out manufacturing. It reduces downtime in factories and warehouses, keeping spindles turning by feeding the machine without interruption.
  • “When there is an in-feed device or an out-feed device, it’s designed and built to OSHA standards. The automation that we are providing is as safe as it gets,” says Holtzapple.
  • It is deployable across all Muratec turning machines: MW50, MW100, MW120, MW200, MW400, MS, and MT.
  • There are four Muratec-compatible UR cobot options, each of which features six 360° rotating joints that feed multiple parts from dedicated bins.
  • Endowed with intelligent vision, the cobots learn through demonstration to retrieve only matching parts, with a bin-to-place accuracy of +/- 0.03 mm. They can handle a variety of part sizes and shapes.
  • Unlike some competitors’ automation solutions, Murata’s machines are efficiently sized for even small facilities.

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Thomas Insights (TI): How is automation advancing manufacturing today?

Jeff Holtzapple (JH): Manufacturers are realizing they must move towards automation. If you look at the industry, we’ve had a tremendous labor shortage for years — I would argue decades. With the pandemic and the effects that it had on the workforce — people forced to stay home and the elimination of jobs — it is even more important today for manufacturers to move towards automation, ensuring operations of the business can continue and adapt quickly to market changes.

David Beltran (DB): Manufacturers are becoming more open to automation because they’re starting to see the need and long-term ROI. As technology has improved significantly in automation with robots, it’s become easier now to program a robot. Manufacturers are starting to see that it is an option for them. We’re here to help customers with training and educating on the benefits of automation.

Doug Schrotenboer (DS): Robots and cobots are used in several ways throughout our automation process, one being feeding parts into the machine. Another would be removing finished parts from that machine. One key differentiator is the ability to integrate our systems with our logistics and automation division, using their storage and retrieval systems and automatic guided vehicles (AGV) to retrieve parts from inventory and transport them to the turning machine. The same AGVs are then programmed to retrieve finished parts from the other side of the machine and transport them back into inventory without ever being touched by human hands. That also allows the customer to run production 24/7, achieving lights-out operation.

TI: What are prospects’ biggest questions about working with automation and robots, and how do you respond to them?

JH: Many people that have not investigated automation seem to be intimidated by it. They feel like their operation is not large enough, but that may not be the case at all. We see simple automation out there.

We get questions like “How do I automate? How do I do this?” We take them by the hand and walk them through the process, looking at their operations, evaluating the parts they’re producing, providing time studies, and showing the ROI data our automation can provide them.

This is what we do day in and day out. We share what we do with customers and show how it can benefit their business. We have a lot of expertise in this field — pick our brains!

DS: Part of that intimidation is the fear of complexity. They think that automation automatically adds complexity to the system, and that’s not the case. We can show them how easy it is to program the robot or cobot.

TI: Besides helping businesses’ bottom line, how are robots and cobots advancing human workers’ careers?

JH: It’s not about eliminating personnel — automation allows you to use your personnel more effectively.

Automation has created a tremendous number of additional jobs, from programmers and control engineers to application engineers. There still must be people who know how to program the equipment and operate it effectively. In some cases, there might be a position that was eliminated, but it generates another position in a more technical field.

DS: Robots used in integrated automation allow manufacturers to shift an employee working in a mundane, hazardous condition loading parts one by one, eight to 10 hours a day, to becoming a machine operator or advancing into another manufacturing position with the proper training.

FullHD_UR5e (1).jpg - 2 minutes ago

TI: How is your partnership with Universal Robots advancing your ability to solve customers’ biggest challenges?

DB: We are a certified systems integrator with Universal Robots, which allows us to further support customers in need of unmanned automation with collaborative robots that integrate with our machines. Our ability to offer an array of UR robot arm options provides our customers with increased safety, labor reductions options, and more flexible solutions for manufacturing a variety of parts.

DS: Our robot integration development has been ongoing for over a year. Our association with Universal Robots has allowed us to rely on their expertise and knowledge in the success of this new robot cell.

There are so many ways that you can employ a robot to do a specific task, and one of the biggest challenges is to make sure it solves the problem that the customer has. The association that we have with Universal Robots has really been helpful with that.

TI: Is there anything new coming down the pipeline that you would like to highlight?

JH: A little-known fact is we have a full line of single spindle turning centers. And we recently repackaged our MS50 with a feeder table, tool holders, and a full line of options to choose from. We also trimmed the MS50 down from a double-sided gantry to a single gantry, making it the perfect, compact footprint for shops with space constraints or an expansion to an existing system.

We have a new machine arriving from Japan next year that is going to be a big game-changer for us: a lathe with a Y-axis. We have the MD live tool version, but this Y-axis allows parts to move up and down off a spindle center and perform more complex milling.

Christine Spiegel (CS): We will be attending FABTECH in Chicago September 13–16. We are showcasing how Muratec means more integrated automation across the board. You’re going to see turning machines, multi-function fabrication machines, and smart AGVs that enable lights-out operations.

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Image Credit: Image courtesy of Murata Machinery USA, Inc. | Muratec USA

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