Robotic Takeaways and Trends from FABTECH 2019

A KUKA welding robot on display at FABTECH 2019. Image courtesy of Jonathan Alonso, CNC Machines.

November 18, 2019      

CHICAGO – More than 40,000 attendees gathered here last week to look at the latest robotics and automation solutions in the metal forming, fabrication, welding and finishing space. The annual FABTECH show is held every two years in Chicago, rotating with other series in the other years.

Here are some of the newer robotic and automation trends we discovered while at the show:

3D printing advances

3D printing continues to advance in the types of products it can produce and materials it can use. The technology is preferable to traditional machining for shorter-run applications, lower costs and a more varied production capability. However, traditional machining can produce high-volume products and components more quickly.

formlabs 3D printing fabtech 2019

Formlabs showed off industrial 3D printed examples at FABTECH 2019. Image: Jonathan Alonso, CNC Machines.

As 3D printing starts to use more materials, it becomes a more compelling option, attendees said. At the show, BigRep announced four new materials:

  • The PLX material is a general-use, bio-performance filament derived from organic compounds, which is a concept BigRep previously showcased with their eco-screen installation. PLX is most suitable for design and functional prototyping suited in open-environment 3D printing projects.
  • PET-CF adds carbon fiber reinforced material to the company’s line of engineering-grade filament. PET-CF is capable of producing exceptionally strong, stiff parts with a fine surface finish and heat resistance up to 100 degrees Celsius.
  • PA6/66 is a lightweight thermoplastic filament with high rigidity and resistance to heat and chemicals, designed for tooling, patterns, molds and end-use parts.
  • BigRep’s BVOH is a water-soluble support material is designed to removed supports and for post-processing for complex parts.

Xometry displayed parts produced with its newest 3D printing process, Carbon DLS, a 3D printing technology that uses digital light projection, oxygen-permeable optics and programmable liquid resins to produce products with end-use durability, resolution, and surface finish.

The company also ran live demos of the Xometry Instant Quoting Engine, which enables the user to select the type of process (3D printing or machining), material and other parameters to obtain pricing for custom parts.

Arc welding design changes

Several companies were showing off new arc welding capabilities. While robots have been used for this application for some time, some providers are making changes in some of their designs.

Kawaski Robotics, for example, separated the centers of the upper arm’s length and rotation axis of the BA006N and BA006L so that wire feeders can be placed in the space behind the upper arm. The design change is designed to provide more operation flexibility, as well as higher speed to increase productivity.

By eliminating cable positioning variables, the change also makes offline programming more efficient and maintenance faster, Kawasaki said.

robotic welding yaskawa motoman AR3120

The AR3120 robot provides long reach for welding. Image: Yaskawa Motoman

Yaskawa Motoman displayed its AR700 and AR900 robots, which the company says are ideal for welding small parts with complicated angles in tight places with an overarm torch. A slim profile design enables close proximity placement of robots for high-density workcells, and a smooth, easy-to-clean surface accommodates use in harsh environments. As an option, the manipulator cable can be connected on the bottom of the robot (as opposed to the side) to avoid wall interference.

Another Yaskawa Motoman robot, the AR1730, has a contoured arm design to allow easy access to parts in tight spots and avoids potential interference with fixtures, enabling close proximity placement of robots for high-density work cells.

Polishing dexterity improves

Using robots for such tasks isn’t new, but the precision and dexterity of the robots and grippers continues to evolve so that robots can handle ever more of these tasks.

Arc Specialties displayed the Kuka LBR iiwa, seven-axis force-controlled collaborative robot that incorporates force sensors into each axis with a resolution of less than one pound of force. Combining superior 3M abrasives with Burr King belt sanders and polishing spindles, along with an experienced robot integrator that puts it all together and creates the code, the result is a cell that demonstrates force-controlled polishing on the belt sander slack side and wheel, with final finishing on a disk.

Finishing app gets easier install

Italy-based Lesta, which announced its entrance into the U.S. in August with its LestaUSA subsidiary, displayed its finishing robots for liquid and powder coat applications.

LestaUSA Fabtech 2019

LestaUSA was showing its finishing robots for liquid and power coat applications. Image: Jonathan Alonso, CNC Machines.

“Our robotic technology itself isn’t new,” said Derek DeGeest, president of LestaUSA. “What’s unique here is that LestaUSA’s proven technology is so simple that, upon completion of the installation, a manufacturer of any size can literally be making their own programs and painting robotically on Day One.”

According to the company, other robotic painting technology requires engineers and robotic programmers, but LestaUSA’s robots are self-learning and only needs a painter to learn. Lesta robots go into a weightless learning mode while in the hands of a company’s best painter, who then performs the painting cycle on a desired part as the software creates its own robotic code of every movement and paint spray. The painter’s exact technique, including the application of the paint, is saved and then mirrored by the robot on future jobs.

Improving teaching pendants

Robot manufacturers continue to seek to make their products easier to use. Yaskawa’s teach pendant, for example, orients itself automatically with the way the operator is oriented. So if the operator turns 90 degrees, for example, “forward,” “right,” “left,” etc., will now be 90 degrees different than it was before, said Michael Castor, product manager, material handling. “Someone can learn how to program basic movements in just 30 seconds; it used to be someone had to spend a whole day learning this.”

Additionally, Yaskawa’s Universal Weldcom Interface (UWI) offers full utilization of the advanced capabilities on select Miller and Lincoln Electric digital welding power supplies, providing simple control of any weld process or parameter, including voltage, amperage and wire feed speed through a common user interface for either brand.

The UWI can filter weld modes based on process type, wire size, wire type and gas type and offers up to 16 unique processes from the power source library for easy access within the interface, and up to 1,000 custom arc files with specific processes and parameters are available for use in motion programming.

Schedule change

Trade shows such as FABTECH tend to be held the same month every year (or every other year for shows on a biennial schedule), but FABTECH will move to September in 2021 (Sept. 13-16) and for future Chicago events.

“FABTECH is one of the largest events held at McCormick Place, bringing $73 million delegation spending to Chicago,” said John Catalano, SME senior director, FABTECH. “As a result of FABTECH’s growth over the past years and our favorable relationship with the city and the convention center, we were proud to make this shift to support the needs of the industry.”

(Editor’s note: Images and video provided courtesy of CNC Machines).