Automated Solutions to Improve Foundry Processes
By Ryan Gneiting and J. Logan McNeil
Automation is a transformative force reshaping the manufacturing landscape. The confluence of shifting job trends and manufacturing dynamics has thrust automation into the spotlight as a pivotal solution to address critical challenges.
Current job reports underscore a growing scarcity of skilled workers, challenging the traditional labor-intensive approach to manufacturing. This shortage has forced industry to find new ways to maintain productivity and efficiency while simultaneously meeting the increasing market demands. With this workforce shift comes a need for enhanced throughput. Consumer expectations for speed and quality are at an all-time high, necessitating enhanced processes that can keep pace without compromising on precision.
Automation has emerged as the linchpin that can bind these trends together. It can mechanize repetitive tasks, leverage artificial intelligence for data-driven decision-making, and optimize production processes. Automation can offer a remedy to both fill the void left by diminishing human resources and also deliver products to market faster with uncompromised quality.
EWI has a long history with automation processes and solutions for the manufacturing industry. Recently, we embarked on a project with the Steel Founders Society of America (SFSA) to improve select processes. Foundry environments can be harsh and dirty environments, and they have relied on manual labor for a variety of skilled tasks. EWI worked with SFSA to identify three foundry tasks for automation: torch cutting, blend grinding, and arc gouging. Each of these tasks was associated with a foundry with varying needs. The level of automation for the task matched the desired implementation of that task within that foundry environment. These levels of automation range from fully automated to some human interaction required through having a human involved controlling the automation.
Application #1: Robotic Torch Cutting. Torch cutting is pervasive within all foundries, specifically for riser and gate removal. The torch cutting process is done on castings after being poured to help remove the extra material associated with the pouring process. A skilled operator can spend the entire day cutting through a large riser section – and parts typically have multiple risers on a single part (Figure 1). For this application, a fully automated solution was sought to cut through either straight or round risers utilizing quick programing of a start/stop location on the part.
Figure 1. Example casting part a) as cast, b) with initial cuts,
and c) final grind and finish
EWI identified a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) solution for robotic torch cutting. The torch was mounted and integrated into a Yaskawa robotic system in EWI’s facility (Figure 2). Simplified programs were then developed for torch cutting. Skilled torch cutting operators were surveyed on the essential variables for torch cutting which include variables such as travel speed, gas flow rate, and preheat time. Torch cutting procedures were developed for five different geometries ranging in thicknesses from 1-6 in. and demonstrated with multiple cuts on risers provided from a foundry. The procedures developed were able to cut through risers containing slag inclusions and coated with silica from the casting process. Video of the process can be viewed here.
Figure 2. Torch cutting system at EWI
Application #2: Semi-automatic Blend Grinding. The second identified application was blend grinding for casting-gate and riser-scar removal. After initial removal of excess material, there is typically the need to do blend grinding on the areas where the risers and/or gates were initially removed (Figure 1b). The desire for this automation solution was a low-cost robotic blend grinding solution which could be easily deployed and programmed by foundry personnel. To reduce cost, cobots with force feedback and simple mounted end effectors were identified for the final implementation of the robotic blend grinding solution. As part of the scope, a simple user interface would be developed to simplify programming the cobot to grind a specific area of the casting surfaces.
Figure 3. UR robot with blend grinding apparatus
Figure 3 shows the EWI-developed, custom end-effector robot mount for a handheld grinder. A Universal Robot (UR) 10 was used to develop the grinding procedure. A simple user interface (UI) with standard commands was developed to streamline operator interactions. For the grinding media and part geometry, force feedback and direction were customized based on a higher material removal rate and better surface finish. The robot was programmed specifying a start and stop location, then inputting how much material should be removed utilizing the robot pendant. A laser spot-measurement sensor was integrated into the system to take measurements of the material removed between grinding passes. The robot, interface, and custom-grinding end effector were demonstrated on three different geometries of castings including flat surfaces, edges, and convex surfaces (Figure 4). To see the process in action, click here.
Figure 4. Ground surface finishes
Application #3 Tele-gouging. The final application identified for automation was an arc-gouging process. The process takes a carbon electrode and runs high current through the workpiece and the electrode to remove material. Arc gouging is typically less precise than torch cutting but has a much higher material removal rate. It is a very nasty manual process that creates a significant amount of dust, vapor, and noise. Most foundries struggle to find skilled arc-gouging operators or people willing to learn due to the PPE and training needed to operate the equipment. Arc gouging typically requires a higher amount of operator input due to high material removal rates and the challenges associated with seeing through the arc for cutting. Therefore, this application was a perfect candidate for EWI’s patented tele-manufacturing technology with haptic feedback developed by Principal Engineer Connie Reichert.
Given the challenges associated with the sensing requirements and need for human intervention with the arc-gouging process, tele-operated technology plays perfectly into removing the operator from the environment while retaining human control over the process. EWI set up a UR10 robot with an arc gouging electrode and custom fixturing, then programmed the process to be done remotely (Figure 5). A standard vision camera and weld-vision camera were used to provide different views to help align the electrode over top of the riser section that was going to be removed. While the operator could set the electrode feed rate, they remained responsible for guiding and activating the movement of the robot using the haptic input device. An operator with no previous experience doing arc-gouging was able to remove the riser in three passes with less than a few hours training on the system. The user interface allows customization of a variety of arc gouging parameters to adjust for distinct types and sizes of riser and gates. The operation can be viewed here.
Figure 5. Tele-gouging setup
Process Automation for Your Applications. As technology developer and engineering consultant, EWI has a unique internal structure in which process experts collaborate alongside automation experts to drive innovative and realistic solutions for tough manufacturing automation problems. Given the demand to automate more jobs in the manufacturing industry, EWI provides the skills and expertise to create and support solutions for your automation needs. The examples above demonstrate our success in addressing process automation challenges regardless of application, process, or environment. The three of these automation applications exhibit a varying level of desired operator input from fully automated to human-in-the-loop. EWI was able to deliver a customized solution for each client based on the task needs.
EWI also has experience delivering automated and semi-automated solutions in:
- Arc Welding
- Machine Tending
- Laser welding
- Resistance Welding
- Inspection & NDE
For any automation needs, EWI is here to assist.
Learn More: If you want to find more about EWI’s automation capabilities and development possibilities for your applications, please contact Ryan Gneiting ([email protected]) or J. Logan McNeil
Note: References to specific equipment and/or materials are for informational purposes only. Any reference made to a specific product does not constitute or imply an endorsement by EWI of the product or its producer or provider.