Automation in their plants can give rubber molders a big advantage over their competitors, but they need to be prepared and careful to make a transition work.
Among the benefits of having automated processes in an operation are reduced labor costs, improved process consistency and the elimination of ergonomic issues, according to Robert Matola, project engineering manager for Klockner Desma Elastomertechnik's U.S. sales arm KDE Sales & Service Inc. in Hebron, Ky.
Matola discussed automating rubber molding processes during a speech at the International Rubber Molding Conference in Cleveland.
The labor cost factor is a big advantage. Fewer costs mean lower prices, and a potential customer then won't go to a competitor or overseas, Matola said.
Taking an operator out of the loop also can eliminate some human error, and help provide better temperature control and lower scrap rates, he said.
The most likely automation candidates are operations with high volume production where there are many similar parts and repeatable processes, Matola said. ``Where there's repetitive action, it's usually better to let a robot do it,'' he said. ``It can help reduce repetitive motion injuries.''
Automation can help a rubber molding operation at any phase of production beyond the actual molding process. Matola cited examples such as flash, sprue and article removal, and insert loading operations where automation saved time and handling steps, and eliminated unknown variables.
There are some key steps to take in ensuring a successful automated operation, he said. These include having an automation prototype made, preparing for ``what if'' scenarios, getting personnel trained and on board, using consistent materials and inserts, and having a good control system in place.
Matola said a molder may be hesitant to build a prototype for an automated step, but he suggested it be done any time there is a transition to automation. ``It's worth the cost and the time.''
Areas of concern for molders adding automation include knowing where parts and inserts are placed at every phase of a process and where flash is occurring and how it is being removed, Matola said. ``You need to know where your finished parts are going to be 100 percent of the time,'' he said.
But having a contingency plan in case something goes wrong is very important, too, Matola added. ``Even if you're 100-percent sure of where a part is at any time in the process, you need to take a step back'' and decide how to handle a situation.
Automating a production cell isn't easy on employees and it probably means fewer operators, but it's critical they are receptive to the change, Matola said. It may mean assembling an even better technical staff, he said, as well as providing good training and involving people early in the transition.
Matola also stressed frequent communication in and between automated cells to keep everyone up to speed on successes and failures. ``When communication is bad, that's when things go wrong,'' he said.