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issue: September 2009 APPLIANCE Magazine

APPLIANCE Engineer - Manufacturing Technology
Flexible Assembly

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A patented connection system allows a single assembly machine to perform almost unlimited processes.

The Tec-Flex modular system from Tec-Option (Blissfield, MI, U.S.; www.tec-option.com) is a flexible assembly system that combines many processes into a single machine. With an interchangeable tooling plate, the system can perform processes that range from MIG welding and sealant and adhesive application, to bushing and bearing insertion and staking. Bryan Domschot, president of Tec-Option, tells APPLIANCE, “We’ve had one system perform a spot weld, then pierce a hole, then auto-feed and weld a fastener over the just-pierced hole. This machine made one part every 7 seconds. The combinations are nearly unlimited, but are determined by the part itself.”

The machine’s flexibility does not stop here, according to Domschot. “The system also allows multiple programs to be utilized in the same machine, which is great for smaller-volume parts. When the model year comes to an end, the new model can be tooled up and used in the same machine, eliminating the need for a new machine,” he says.

This feature is especially handy for small-volume production of similar parts. “Say you have a group of ten parts that are similar, but not identical, that require the same process and you have a low volume of each. It doesn’t make sense to buy ten separate machines to make these parts,” says Domschot. With a Tec-Flex system, “all the parts could be produced on one machine at a lower cost, and you’ll even have room left over for another program or two.” The same machine can be retooled again for future projects. “Not only do you reduce capital spending, but floor space is also minimized, resulting in even more savings,” adds Domschot.

At the heart of the system, according to Tec-Option, is an interchangeable tooling plate that supports various processes. The tooling plate can be changed by a nontechnical operator in less than five minutes, without the use of any forklifts or tools. “We use a patented process to connect and disconnect the tooling from the machine using one press of a button on the touch screen. All of the utilities and the tool recognition are automatically connected and recognized,” explains Domschot. Because the system is modular, the tooling plate can be exchanged with another to take advantage of unused machine time. A tooling plate can be removed for preventative maintenance or cleaning, while the current production can continue without disruption.

With lean manufacturing being part of its design philosophy, Tec-Option has incorporated mechanical and electrical poka-yokes into all of its tooling plates to ensure that parts are loaded correctly. The integrated clamps and anti-removal devices contain the parts until the entire process is complete and error-free. Advanced programming techniques allow for fault recovery at nearly every level of assembly to reduce scrap from unfinished parts. “Zero defects is our goal, but containing a bad part is even better,” says Domschot. “Besides the in-process checking of parts, some customers require a check station after the process has been completed. This, along with other techniques, has been used to guarantee quality parts for every industry.”

To achieve even better cycle time, part rate, and flexibility, the user can choose from several technologies that Tec-Option offers. One of them is servo positioning, which enables the user to control adjustments to part changes by on-screen parameters instead of mechanical changes. “The user selects a part, and the data that direct the servo motion are automatically saved or recalled based on that part,” says Domschot. “Switching from one part to the next is as simple as changing a servo position number—this is done automatically by the programmable logic controller (PLC) and requires no setup. The positions are stored in the PLC and are backed up by a battery in case of power loss.”

Another option is the auto unload feature, which Domschot says is a great option for parts that do not need to be hand-packed into a container. “This frees up the operator to concentrate on loading parts only, and results in faster production rates, less operator movement, and increases labor resources.” Used in conjunction with a conveyor, parts can be routed directly to a bin for the next process or for shipping without an operator handling the part. If required, a vision system can be used for final part inspection.

The Tec-Flex can be easily integrated into existing lines, according to Domschot. “Because the Tec-Flex has both a conveyor and a robot option, it is compatible with existing robot installations and conveyor integration. The robot can act as a material handler, a MIG welder, or can adapt itself to any other application required to perform the process. The conveyor option usually dumps the completed part into a bin, but can easily feed onto another conveyor, if needed,” he says.


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