Improving Safety With Robots

Bill Finn

At the 2023 Environmental, Health and Safety Conference, Jeff Heishman of Clow Valve and Calvin Wildeboer of John Deere shared a presentation on the importance of safety in the use of industrial robots, and how robots are currently being utilized by their employers. 

Clow Valve Machine Shop is currently using 26 robots, including 19 industrial robots, four paint robots, and three collaborative robots. Heishman’s half of the presentation gave an overview of how these robots are utilized at the facility and emphasized their role in enhancing team members' health and safety. 

“Clow Valve has confidence in enhanced productivity and safety that robotics provide, from material handling, machine tool tending, part assembly, part painting, and part inspection,” Heishman said. “Workplace tasks considered to be repetitive and sometimes dangerous are performed by robots to protect the health and safety of our team members.”  

Heishman added that before robots were implemented, employees had typically been tasked with lifting up to 40 lbs. without the support of a machine. With robots now being tasked with picking up heavy objects, the chance of injury for employees is lessened. 

Another area of focus during this presentation was around vision systems and considerations for their implementation. A vision system is described as a specialized camera that captures an object's image and provides precise coordinates to guide a robotic arm to the desired location. 

Compatibility of the system is crucial to its success, says Heishman. Many third-party systems are available, often outperforming the manufacturer's offerings. Heishman says when considering an integrator for the project, it's essential to verify their experience and request references. Defining a clear scope of work and ensuring the integrator provides all necessary documentation is recommended. Also, the integrator should provide a risk assessment for the project, emphasizing the importance of establishing a partnership with the integrator to ensure success. 

Robot applications in the melt department was another key aspect of this presentation. During his half of the presentation, Calvin Wildeboer emphasized that although the goals for his employer, John Deere, may not be primarily productivity-driven, the focus is on improving ergonomics and safety. “Generally, the robots in this case [melt department robots] were used to take the load off of your operator and place it on something mechanical.” 

In the context of the foundry, Wildeboer challenges the perception that robots are slow, highlighting their value in improving safety and ergonomics in processes like sliding and slagging.  

“The operators have had these robots since 2018, and they told me as a young, impressionable guy, we don't like these robots. They're slow. We'd like to go back to backslag,” he said. “And I had the opportunity to watch an art furnace being backslagged in my time at Plow. I just laughed and I go, okay, I highly disagree.” 

The main considerations for introducing robots is to mitigate crush, burn, and hazards. These challenges are particularly relevant in tasks involving the addition of alloys and slagging the furnace. In terms of efficiency, times have been reduced from five to ten minutes on button presses at John Deere, allowing robots to operate autonomously. The slagger head, operated remotely, selects different parts of the furnace and uses a pneumatic cylinder to close slagger paddles and safely drop slag into the furnace. 

The discussion continues with more focus on the benefits and applications of robots in the foundry environment at John Deere. Operators are required to leave the control shack only to collect samples, and this has significantly reduced the associated risks. Additionally, robots are employed in the alloy addition process, replacing the manual handling of bags. While some burn risk remains due to splashes during alloy addition, the presence of the robot keeps operators at a safer distance from the furnace. 

The discussion then transitioned to mold line improvements. Wildeboer shared that the goal is to reduce ergonomic risks by minimizing operator interaction with the continuously moving mold line and preventing operators from reaching over the mold consistently, while also maintaining sufficient productivity.  

“They [robots] offer probably the greatest productivity boost on our mold line. The robot has an NMARC tool that's several feet long to drill through the coat.” Wildeboer said. “Basically, because it's run by a robot instead of an operator who constantly has to make adjustments, again, you get depth repeatability, location repeatability, and better tooling life.” 

The discussion emphasizes how robots offer both ergonomic benefits and safety enhancements in various applications within the foundry. Filter location repeatability might not be a substantial productivity boost, but it guarantees consistent results. Operators no longer need to reach or handle filters and chapels, reducing strain and safety risks, as well as ensuring quality control. The system employs a fixture with a light curtain that enables operators to set up the robot by placing filters in the fixture. The robot uses a picture to determine filter placement, enhancing safety. 

Additionally, the application of sleeve set robots provides a solution for ergonomic issues related to handling increasingly larger sleeves. These robots offer improved repeatability, speed, and consistency, addressing concerns of lifting heavier loads. By relieving operators from handling sleeves manually, it enhances safety, especially by adhering to safety standards of lifting 10 to 25 pounds. 

The presentation underscores the value of robotics in the foundry, not just for precision and productivity, but also for the well-being and comfort of the workforce. By deploying robots, foundries can alleviate heavy workloads, reduce risks associated with hot environments, and make tasks more efficient.