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Fully automated plasma-cutting cells for South Africa’s growing automotive sector

With the aid of KUKA robot-controllers and plasma-cutting cells, ‘ROBOTENGINE’, a South African provider of CNC solutions, were able to successfully integrate a highly cost-efficient automated system for the manufacture of stainless-steel, tailored specifically to the automotive sector.

15 July 2022

KUKA’s established UK/IE cluster has undergone a recent expansion, via the inclusion of South Africa; a market brimming with potential, especially in-terms of its automotive sector. Currently the largest contributor to automotive manufacturing on the African continent, South Africa is making great strides in this industry, having transformed into a hub for exports of passenger-cars to several other parts of the world – particularly, the UK and EU. Growing numbers of such exports have therefore resulted in an increased demand for automated technology within South African automotive production-facilities, in recent years.

Designing and implementing robotic solutions for over a decade, Durban-based ‘ROBOTENGINE’ – a KUKA Silver system-partner – delivers innovative and cost-effective automation applications across a range of sectors relevant to South African manufacturing. Though our system-partnership has only been ‘official’ since this past September, ‘ROBOTENGINE’ have been advocates for the integration of KUKA robot-cells, within South African manufacturing, for several years. In 2016, the company were approached by ‘MAXE’, a premium South African automotive and truck-accessory manufacturer, to provide a plasma-cell solution that would assist in the manufacture of stainless steel – a durable alloy that is essential to the creation of structural designs and frameworks, for a range of automotive accessories.

Cutting stainless steel is an arduous and difficult task; especially when the surface that is being cut requires holes to be placed in difficult-to-reach regions, angled-ends to be trimmed and varying tubular shapes with bends throughout the tubes.  Enter the need for a robot – a plasma cutting robot to be more exact. With ever-growing demand for automotive components delivered by South African manufacturers, it would only seem logical to simply upscale the cell needs, as ‘ROBOTENGINE’ was invited to do by ‘MAXE’. As a result of this collaboration, ‘MAXE’ now has two KUKA plasma-cells, working day and night to satisfy the need for their stainless-steel components to be cut to perfection – just in time – by our KUKA robot-integration cells.

KUKA has mastered the art of automated plasma-cutting for many years at this point; implementing automatic position-detection and tolerance-compensation during the cutting-process, that is made possible via advanced 3D measurements of workpieces, utilising high-precision sensors. The parts that typically get cut, include, nudge bars, styling bars, side steps and sports bars.

Design emphasis for this particular cell, was on safety, ease of operation and portability

Andre Botha, Founder & CEO, ROBOTENGINE

The two KUKA plasma-cells which ‘ROBOTENGINE’ integrated for ‘MAXE’ can cut a vast array of such parts, with varying designs and many models. Each cell contains two cutting-tables, fixed, and calibrated to exceptionally fine measurements, allowing for the parts that are used to be placed on customised jigs that are coded specifically for that particular jig. Once the job is finished, the robot waits for any changes and prepares the next cut according to the jig loaded on the tables.

In a harsh environment, such as the one in which these plasma cutting robots work, it is essential that man and machine operate in harmony, whilst maintaining production-requirements. Training was therefore key in preparing ‘MAXE’, as the end-user, to operate and integrate the cell. This training involved learning how to perform predictive-maintenance and together with regular ‘ROBOTENGINE’ inspections, the integrity of the cell-equipment, as well as its operation, has been maintained to a very high standard, thus minimising down-time.

Generally, South African car-manufacturing standards are exceptionally high, as this a legacy-industry for the country, and the quality of parts to be added to vehicles are no different. Andre Botha, founder, and CEO of ‘ROBOTENGINE’, highlights that “Design emphasis for this particular cell, was on safety, ease of operation and portability”. As such, the cells had been modularly built on a monocoque platform, to make them easily transportable, with cabling installed into the framework, affording them total protection from any mechanical damage. Furthermore, operation of the cell was programmed to be sequence-driven and controlled, with each load-sequence requiring completion prior to the commencement of the next sequence. Such safety-systems were in place to prevent operator ingress into working-areas, while the cells were in operation.

Ultimately, safety is paramount in all motor vehicles design, particularly as a requirement of South Africa’s stringent quality standards and regulations. In-fact, once the plasma-cutting process is over, there are additional safety-measures in place, to ensure that a robot stops when safety may be compromised. This includes beams and access-intrusion, for instance, or even a collision; the only reason for a collision, would be from potential bad programming, or careless operation whilst in manual mode. In any case ‘ROBOTENGINE’ have collision-detectors installed on the 6th axis and the cells can only be moved after a collision by a qualified and authorised supervisor, who has a manual override key to enable jogging the robot to safety.

We developed and successfully ran the first generation KRC4 cell for 3 years. From the experience we gained through this, we went on to develop and optimise a second-generation KR C5 cell

Andre Botha, Founder & CEO, ROBOTENGINE

‘ROBOTENGINE’ recently upgraded the original robot cell, utilising a KR C4 controller, to match the operational functionality and performance of more modern KR C5 optimised robots. According to Botha, “We developed and successfully ran the first generation KRC4 cell for 3 years. From the experience we gained through this, we went on to develop and optimise a second-generation KR C5 cell.” Given its compact, high-quality, and low-energy consumption nature, the KUKA KR C5 controller allows the end-user to save space, as well as deliver highly efficient performance, in addition to conserving resources. In this way, it can be seamlessly integrated into heterogeneous automation landscapes, and almost all KR C4 applications are supported, just as in this case.

Overall, through their utilisation of a KUKA robotic applications, ‘ROBOTENGINE’ were able to design and integrate a cell adapted for different technologies, whilst retaining the exact same operational procedure – in turn, allowing the same operator to operate a plasma-cell, welding-cell, and trimming-cell, with no additional cell-training. Consequently, ‘MAXE’ now enjoy a superbly crafted application, tailored to the highest standard.

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