Robot system integration in the plastics sector

System integrators (SIs) in the plastics sector serve as a valuable link between robot suppliers and automation end-users, providing industry-specific automation advice to help companies improve their efficiency, as well as building standard or bespoke automation systems that allow manufacturers to benefit from the latest robotic technology.

Leading robot manufacturer FANUC has worked with Hi-Tech Automation as its plastics SI partner for over 15 years, during which time the skills required to be a successful integrator have evolved. Since the introduction of the IIoT, many of today’s factories are smart and connected, 24/7. Being able to integrate a robot into an existing line therefore requires more than mechanical capabilities; like Hi-Tech, today’s SIs must also possess a high level of programming and other software skills to ensure that factory managers are able to receive a constant flow of data to enhance their manufacturing operation, as well as for transparency and reporting purposes.

Programming prowess + mechanical muscle

Dan Fisher is the Partner Sales Manager for FANUC UK and has seen this evolution ramp up over the past few years. “Factory managers now expect instant information on a product’s position in the manufacturing lifecycle. FANUC’s robots are known for being simple to install, easy to programme and user-friendly. But being able to integrate a robot into what is in effect a mini warehouse management system is nevertheless a crucial skill for an SI. This includes being proficient across multiple programming languages. However, while lots of engineers are software savvy, some lack traditional mechanical skills that are still essential to a successful automation installation, such welding, guarding and fabricating. For this reason, we ensure that any SI we work with not only demonstrates strong programming abilities but is also supported by a network of mechanical engineers.”

Reliability for life

FANUC treats its SI partners as extensions of its in-house sales teams and provides no-charge training for up to 30 employees from their company throughout the year.

The majority of automation system integrators are independent service providers, meaning they can specify robots from a variety of manufacturers. Deciding which automation company to partner with is an important choice that can make or break a project, as Gary Probert, Director of Hi Tech Automation, explains: “We deliver standard and bespoke automated injection moulding systems for the plastics sector and have been a FANUC system integrator partner for over 15 years, most commonly specifying their ROBOSHOT all-electric injection moulding machine. For us, reliability is key – when dealing with a new customer, it’s important that the first installation goes well as that sets the tone for the rest of the relationship. Using FANUC products means we can be sure that the project will be right first time. Their equipment is built to last. They’re also one of the only robot companies that manufacture every part of the robot themselves – motors, drives, everything. It reflects badly on us if a system breaks down so knowing the base robot is rock solid is a real advantage.”

Gary adds: “In addition, as 90% of the systems we sell have something extra on them – for example, integrated vision or auxiliary axes – it helps that we are able to get it all from FANUC. There’s no need for us to go to another supplier, which keeps things simple and reduces the risk to the client.”

Specialist sector knowledge

As Gary mentions, for the customer, working with a system integrator is a sure-fire way to derisk an automation installation project. Responsibility lies with one SI, rather a number of external suppliers – and SIs also bring with them sector-specific knowledge and expertise which individual robot suppliers may not possess.

This view is echoed by FANUC’s Dan Fisher, who states: “For the customer, working with an SI partner that only operates within your chosen sector – in Hi-Tech’s case, plastics – is a real bonus. They will understand the challenges you’re looking to overcome, the pitfalls you want to avoid, and the advantages you expect to make from your automation installation. From FANUC’s perspective, while we’re the expert in our own range of products, we may not know everything about each sector in which our robots are employed. To ensure the customer gets the right solution, at the right price, and that it works as intended for their particular application, dealing with an SI like Hi-Tech, who have specialist sector knowledge, is a fast-track to success.”

Ongoing support

This works both ways, however. To ensure the customer gets the very best out of their automation solution, it is imperative that the SI understands the full capabilities of any robot, machine or ancillary equipment that they are specifying. FANUC treats its SI partners as extensions of its in-house sales teams and provides training for up to 30 employees from their company throughout the year. As well as ensuring they are comprehensively trained on FANUC’s entire product portfolio, it also offers specialist courses in ever-evolving areas such as vision, safety (e.g., Dual Check Safety software), and simulation (e.g., FANUC ROBOGUIDE) to keep them up to date with the very latest in automation technology.

Immediate response

FANUC’s support extends beyond training to offer a complete wraparound service. “We have dedicated engineering support and software support teams, and a specialist integrator hotline which puts our SI partners through to FANUC technical experts within seconds,” says Dan Fisher. “While the reliability of our products is obviously important, the real difference to an SI is knowing that technical knowledge and support is there, whenever and wherever they need it. When we work with a system integrator, we’re building a long-term relationship. And just as our partnership with Hi-Tech Automation demonstrates, we want to remain connected in 10 or 20 years’ time.”

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