Material Handling
Thursday | 11 February, 2016 | 11:18 am

Under pressure

By Gretchen Salois

Above: An aerial view of the debanding robot in its start position at Steelscape.

For a variety of tasks, robotic technology proves advantageous

February 2016 - As automakers continue to move forward with efforts to reduce emissions and improve gas mileage, the materials used for body components are also changing. Ford’s aluminum F-150 pickup truck shifted a paradigm, using recycled aluminum instead of standard steel to shed nearly 700 pounds. 

Long assumed was that only steel could be strong and cost effective enough to handle the rigors and safety requirements of 21st century vehicle manufacturing. No longer the case, Novelis rolls aluminum sheet for the automaker’s next generation of pickup trucks.

This requires efficient movement of material and traceability. After casting, scalping and preheating, a material-handling robot built by Tebulo N.A. Ltd., Hamilton, Ontario, provided the most accurate and consistent coil marking for Novelis coils. “Tebulo was able to accommodate all of the project’s needs ranging from mechanical design, electrical design, programming and integration into our control systems,” says John Piscitelli, hot mill project engineer at Novelis’ Oswego Works in New York.

Tebulo’s ability to maintain an accurate account of coils has helped Novelis’ operations overall.  The robotic system’s main challenge within Novelis’ hot mill project was ensuring the custom-produced marking ink would work with hot aluminum coils, says Harry Scholtens, sales manager at Tebulo, which is a subsidiary of Tebulo Industrial Automation, Warmenhuizen, the Netherlands. “Tracking is critical in the metals industry and especially important in automotive applications,” he says. “Products are designed based on specific compositions. A variance in the composition of a metal component could have catastrophic results.

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A debanding robot detects the I.D. straps on the coil at the entry end of Steelscape’s mill.

“For example, if the assembly of a Ford F-150 pickup truck requires high-grade aluminum components, but the assembly plant receives mixed metals, both the supplier and manufacturer could face fines, legal action and lost revenue because of correction costs. Identifying metals at the point of production eliminates [those concerns].”

Painful process

When rolling mills receive raw coils from the hot mill, the material is held together by steel banding, says Vince Wilbur, mechanical engineering tech at Steelscape Inc., Kalama, Washington. Cutting steel bands has typically required a worker to wedge a band cutter tool by hand between the coil of steel and steel banding that is harnessing hundreds of pounds of pressure. Workers are required to use some elbow grease—often to the detriment of their joints. The struggle is real at many rolling mills as carpal tunnel syndrome and elbow injuries often plague those workers in charge of debanding coils in preparation for processing. “These steel bands are cinched tight to each coil and operators had to drive manual band cutters between the coil and steel band in order to cut them off,” Wilbur says.

After identifying the safety concerns associated with debanding, a companywide push ensued to reduce pedestrian and forklift interactions (a forklift with a coil ram is used to lift coils during the debanding process), Wilbur says Steelscape launched a search for a safer method. Steelscape receives coils with varying thicknesses, each wrapped with seven bands, four I.D. and three O.D., but coils sometimes arrive with fewer and are removed or are inconsistently placed during processing and transport. “The bands are under tension and once cut, would often spring open, potentially striking the operator,” Wilbur says. “We used to set coil in a V-block, allowing operators to cut the bands off the coil, which would then have to be raised using a forklift because the bands were pinched beneath the coil and V-block.”

What Steelscape needed was not remedied easily by the solutions they looked into; there were limited resources as most robotic debanding was performed in integrated mills, where only one band had to be removed. “We basically had a couple of choices and it came down to how versatile the robot could be with varying bands and thicknesses,” Wilbur says.

Tebulo was tasked with supplying a robot that could deband a wide variety of coils while ensuring a seamless flow entering the Steelscape pickling facility, Tebulo’s Harry Scholtens says. “The hot band debanding robot was required to remove up to eight bands from the inner and outer diameter of various coils, indexing back and forth between two lines of coils,” he says. Tebulo also had to integrate the robotics system with the walking beam conveyor systems that transport coils to Steelscape’s pickle line.

Of the available options, Tebulo proved to be the one that offered a way to maneuver inconsistent banding issues. Robots are typically set in place at one pass line in one location. Tebulo’s design for Steelscape worked between two pass lines and multiple bands and rotated coil instead of being stationary. The robotic debander was also retrofitted into Steelscape’s existing operations, a feat in itself, adds Wilbur.

Now, instead of workers cutting bands manually, the robot can do it by scanning each coil and detecting where the bands are located. In the event the robot misses a band, the operator can easily intervene and instruct the robot to go back and catch any that were missed. 

“Our process line operators can interact with the robot via push-button selections that preselect debanding programs that aid the robot in efficiency,” Wilbur says. “Basically the operator can tell the robot if the coil has I.D. or O.D. bands, or both, to save the robot from scanning the entire coil, which helps improve efficiency, time and compensates for inconsistencies.” While the actual robot and cutting heads weren’t designed much differently than those built for other Tebulo customers, it was the programming and Tebulo’s previous coil handling experience that stood out to Steelscape. The coil processor worked with Tebulo to incorporate blocker rolls into the design to rotate the coil for the robot to help with band removal. Human interaction has dropped significantly. “We’re at 97 percent efficiency [so] only 3 percent of the time does an operator need to manually cut the bands,” Wilbur says. “The way this robot is set up, there is no person working around forklifts, reducing the forklift/pedestrian interaction.” 

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A robot built by Tebulo is marking the south side of each coil with high- temperature black ink at Novelis’ newest sheet rolling mill.

Robotic roadmap

The project scope for Tebulo’s marking system package at Novelis included an automated marking robot, coil banding requirement, and modifications to the hot mill finishing process, including weighing, temperature, product tracking, etc., Piscitelli says. The mill averages 130 coils per day. “The identifying data marked on each coil varies by product type,” plus cast alloys, in some cases, are heat treatable.

“The accuracy and consistency of the coil marking certainly helps traceability of the product through the manufacturing process,” says Chris Smith, plant manager at Novelis Oswego Works. 

Increased safety and greater accuracy drove both Novelis’ and Steelscape’s decision to purchase robots from Tebulo. “The automated features of the Tebulo are a dramatic improvement on ergonomics and safety,” Piscitelli claims. “A large portion of the project was justified based on those qualities alone.”

Tebulo’s automated robot was the first 6-axis robot installed in the Novelis Oswego Works facility. “With Novelis and Tebulo working in collaboration, the implementation process went very smoothly throughout the entire project,” Piscitelli says.

Using robotic systems to track material also helps eliminate misinterpretation of data. Coils are marked exactly as programmed and commissioned, Tebulo’s Scholtens says.

From a programming perspective, Tebulo had to ensure the robot could handle Steelscape’s raw hot band from the coil storage yard with oxidized, dirty bands. The robot needed to be able to detect and remove coils. “The 6-axis robot, mounted on a seventh axis indexing base, is agile enough to deband coils on both lines, ensuring a seamless flow of production,” says Scholtens.

Steelscape’s robotic debanding project was “truly a team project,” says Wilbur. Each department from operations to upper management participated. “My hat goes off to Tebulo’s engineering team, both mechanical and electrical. It was really fun working with them. 

“I must say a special thanks to Tebulo’s automation engineer Willem Bijlsma,” continues Wilbur. “He is the guy that made the project a success through programming. He just kept at it until we achieved the efficiency we were looking for. He didn’t give up.” MM

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