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Robotics and automation in plastic and rubber products manufacturing: How to get started

A guide to the top three use cases for robots in the industry

7-minute read

The Canadian plastic and rubber products manufacturing industry is sizable, with 2,937 companies across the country generating annual revenues of $31.2 billion. It is also well ahead of most other industries when it comes to industrial automation: according to the latest figures, the plastic industry ranks fourth when it comes to robot installations worldwide. Nevertheless, the industry can and must do better for a number of reasons.

First, in a context where plastic and rubber products manufacturers are automating rapidly worldwide, Canadian companies need to keep up if they want to remain competitive.

Second, environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues are becoming ever more important for investors, consumers, large companies, policymakers and other industry stakeholders. To maintain a good reputation, the industry must improve its efficiency, reduce waste and develop production practices that are more sustainable. The integration of robots and automation technologies can help accomplish these objectives.

Third, even though the industry’s overall robot density is high, small and medium companies are lagging behind large corporations when it comes to automation.

Smaller companies have tended to rely on workers rather than robots. But business owners are finding it harder to continue this way because of a labour shortage in Canada, as well as rising wages in China. Robots can help companies regain competitiveness by cutting production costs, increasing quality and reducing rework.

Robots can also help maintain production volumes when qualified workers are hard to find: In Quebec, for example, 44% of manufacturers have automated or robotized certain processes to deal with the labour shortage.

In this article, we present the top three robot applications that can help plastic and rubber product manufacturers automate their processes. We selected these technologies because they are among the simplest and cheapest to implement, all the while offering an interesting return on investment. The applications are:

  • automated plastic molding
  • material removal
  • sorting and assembly

Automated plastic molding

Automated plastic molding systems combine loading and unloading robots with molding machines to manufacture plastic products without needing continuous human intervention.

There are many different types of molding machines, but two of the most popular are:

  • injection molding machines, which work by injecting molten material into a mold
  • blow molding machines, which are used mainly for forming hollow plastic parts, like bottles

The loading and unloading robots are generally guided by sophisticated algorithms and can load or unload the molding machines consistently, without risking damage to the workpiece.

Automated plastic molding systems are very versatile. They can be used to fabricate a wide range of plastic products and components, of practically any size, for a large number of applications. For this reason, automated plastic molding systems are a great first step if you are only starting to introduce robots on your factory floor.

Combining cobots and molding machinery

Collaborative robots, often referred to as cobots, are advanced robotic systems designed to work safely alongside humans in a shared workspace. They typically resemble articulated arms.

Cobots are a great choice of robot when it comes to loading and unloading molding machines. Precise and consistent, they can increase quality significantly since newly molded parts are fragile and vulnerable to deforming.

Using pneumatic grippers or vacuum-based collection systems, cobots can manipulate workpieces with more finesse and consistency than a human, ensuring that it does not get damaged in the process.

Furthermore, using cobots for loading and unloading:

  • improves worker safety
  • reduces the need for manual labour
  • streamlines the overall manufacturing process
  • increases productivity
  • improves cost-effectiveness

Since cobots are easy to program, they can often work in the high-mix low-volume context that is typical of many small businesses.

Price of automated plastic molding system

Expect to pay between $110,000 and $200,000, depending on the options needed, for an automated plastic molding system.

Material removal

Material removal robots handle a range of tasks such as cutting, trimming, drilling and deflashing, which is the process of removing excess or residual material (“flash”) attached to a molded product.

While your employees can, for the most part, perform these tasks by hand, material removal robots are quicker and more precise than humans. Whether you manufacture toboggans, car components, computer covers or speaker enclosures, these machines will help you achieve consistent product quality, increase production speed and optimize human resources.

In most cases, material removal robots can be used on low-volume production lines. Many drilling robots, for example, can be easily combined with simple templates to drill holes rapidly in pre-determined spots on your workpiece.

Collaborative robots can even be programmed to handle a number of different products using an offline programming technique—meaning industrial robots are programmed outside the production environment. This is called CAD-to-Path.

To make the most of your investments, however, you first need to review your processes to ensure they are already lean and efficient. Imagine, for instance, a company that is wasting a high number of man-hours deflashing plastic parts. A robot could easily handle this task. But it might make more financial sense to invest first in high-quality molds that will reduce flashing. Once this is done, your investment in robots will yield significantly higher benefits.

Price of material removal robot system

Most cobots for material removal will cost between $90,000 and $180,000.

Sorting and assembly

Sorting robots are used to separate and organize components, for instance, on a conveyor belt, in order to package them or assemble a final product.

Assembly robots, on the other hand, are used to joint and fasten parts and components by welding, clipping, gluing or riveting them together.

These two methods are presented here together since they are often used together on production lines.

Sorting plastic parts and products used to be difficult since plastic can be shiny and translucent. For this reason, traditional vision systems often had a hard time identifying items correctly. However, recent advances in vision systems and artificial intelligence have made it possible, and easy, for robots to handle transparent and shiny parts.

Once up and running, sorting robots will reduce the risk of error and speed up your production line, while assembly robots will help you minimize repetitive stress injuries and increase consistency in the assembly process.

Combining sorting robots with assembly robots is an advanced approach that will streamline your production processes. To limit costs, and simplify the process, you can start small by automating a single work cell before automating your full production line.

Price of sorting and assembly robots

The cost of sorting and assembly machines can vary significantly depending on the task to be accomplished. If your project requires lengthy programming and artificial intelligence, for instance, costs will be much higher. But as a starting point, a basic machine vision system can cost between $5,000 and $20,000, and will allow you to perform object detection, parts counting and print character reading—essential tasks in sorting applications.

You don’t have to explore automation on your own

Find out how we can help you find and finance the right automation solution for your business.

Ask for one of our experts to call you back to discuss your robotics and automation projects.

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