By Eric Anderson
The manufacturing of a product may involve a variety of components that need a way to be fed into an assembly machine or system. Due to the uniqueness of each part (e.g., shape, weight, geometry, etc.), it’s important to select the best feeding system for each component. In addition to the part itself, the full project scope must be considered in order to ensure the application requirements are met when selecting a part feeding system.
There are a broad range of automated feeding systems available and making the best choice is critical to the success of each project. All different feeding methods have strengths and weakness that must be taken into account. Additional factors to consider include, but are not limited to: What is the component’s material? What is the shape of the component? What is the size of the component? How fast must the component be fed into the automated system? How many different components must the feeder work with? How much space is available for the feeder? How are the components loaded into the feeder?
Below, we’ll discuss three different types of automated part feeding systems commonly used for automated machines, including the proprietary Flex Feeder custom-designed by Steven Douglas Corp (SDC).
Automated Flex Feeder
The ideal automated feeding system for many applications is easy to use, reliable, and adaptable. The Flex Feeder was designed and built by SDC to meet these expectations.
The SDC Flex Feeding system consists of a parts feeding hopper, a custom programmed conveyor system, and a vision-guided robot ‘pick-and-place’ that operate in unison to provide a consistent, reliable supply of parts for any automation system. Operating the system is simple using the touchscreen HMI (Human-Machine Interface). An operator manually loads the hopper, which can hold thousands of parts. The hopper is then unloaded by a bucket conveyor, collecting a couple of parts at a time and dropping the parts onto the feed conveyor, the speed of which can be customized to fit the needs of the machine and the availability of parts. Once on the feed conveyor, the parts pass through a vision system which tells the robot the exact location of each part so that it can quickly and efficiently pick-and-place the parts into the machine. Any parts the robot does not pick, are recirculated back to the hopper to maintain a continuous flow of parts to the robot. This system can be integrated into an SDC automation project or designed as a standalone feeder on an existing automation cell.
A key advantage of our proprietary Flex Feeder design is that the system is flexible in all aspects. The system can be adapted and programmed to fit fast or slow applications, big or small parts, any part color, and many other part variations that are traditionally difficult to automatically feed. Likewise, the same automated feeder can be tooled so that it can handle various part sizes and changeover can be as simple as selecting the new size on the touchscreen HMI. Following this instruction from the operator, the robot and machine will auto-purge existing parts and automatically make the required changes to accept the new part.
Another advantage of our proprietary system is that it can be adapted in the future as business needs and as parts change, whereas with some other feeding systems like a vibratory bowl feeder, you might have to purchase an entirely new system if the design of your parts changed.
Operator Manually Loading Parts into a System
The manual loading of parts is a feeding system commonly used by SDC that offers several benefits. Manually loading parts provides a cost-effective solution to input complex parts with a lot of variability. Furthermore, it allows a lot of flexibility and can be adapted to fit many applications.
In this type of system, an operator would manually load parts into fixtures or holders for the automated system. By using an operator, the strengths of a person (e.g., flexibility, adaptability, critical thinking, etc.) are put to good use. Common applications are instances where a customer has a low volume of parts or requires a low operating speed (perhaps for a test assembly). However, manually loading parts can work for a high-speed application as well.
Shown above are pictures from a couple of SDC applications. In the first image, the fixture would be loaded by an operator. Each load cycle requires six unique parts loaded onto the fixture and can produce a completed assembly every 10 seconds. The second image shows nests loaded with packaging lids. In this application, an operator would load a stack of 50 lids into each nest at once, then the machine would automatically unload the nests at a high-speed rate of 1 lid per second.
A manual part feeding system can be combined with a variety of automated processes to improve the operation. For example, after the operator manually loads the parts, an inspection can verify the parts were loaded correctly. Light curtains or other guards and machine safety mechanisms can also be added so other automated processes can be completed in tandem with an operator, as is the case in both of the applications mentioned above.
Vibratory Bowl Feeding
Another common part feeding system is a vibratory bowl with an inline vibratory track. This part feeding system utilizes a vibrating bowl with custom tooling and/or air jets that are designed based on the part geometry to sort, orient, and feed parts into an inline track. The inline track then acts as a magazine, where parts are continuously pulled from and placed into the automated system.
There are several benefits to implementing vibratory bowls in your automated system. For instance, they are very robust in that once the bowl is set up to run, it can run for many years with limited maintenance. In addition, vibratory bowls are capable of handling minor variances in parts with ease. Speed is another benefit of a vibratory bowl feeding system, as it can feed parts very quickly. SDC, for example, has used vibratory bowls in applications requiring four parts to be fed in under two seconds, one part in less than 0.5 seconds.
The SDC Advantage
Ultimately, the best automated feeding system will depend on your application. The feeders mentioned above are just a small sampling of what is available. In some instances, you may even find that certain parts can’t be fed with any of the previous feeding technologies due to a variety of factors, such as part geometry, material, and/or application. In these cases, SDC has experience evaluating the machine requirements, prototyping, and implementing a custom feeding solution to suit your parts.
As the largest and most capable engineering company in Northeast Ohio, SDC has extensive experience in selecting the best automated feeding system to meet your needs. When you partner with us, you’ll benefit from our proprietary designs and extensive experience in specifying, testing, and implementing all feeder types, including our proven flex feeding system.
Tags: Assembly & Processing, Machine Vision, Material Handling