Using an integrated robot to feed steel blanks through a shear has boosted productivity at Lane Steel.
By Tim Triplett, Editor-in-Chief
At most service centers, the shearing operation tends to cause bottlenecks because of all the manual labor involved. Not at Lane Steel, now that it has a robotic arm to lend a hand.
Robotic equipment is relatively commonplace in manufacturing operations, but is rarely seen in metals service centers. Indeed, the principals at Lane Steel believe their automated shearing system is the first of its kind in that environment.
Lane Steel is a flat-rolled steel distributor and processor based just outside Pittsburgh, run by brothers Paul and Mike Gedeon. Their father, Albert, started the business in 1982, primarily brokering secondary steel. Paul, now Lane’s president, joined the company in 1988, followed by Mike, vice president of operations, a year later. Under the brothers’ influence, the company began adding processing equipment and inventory. Today, Lane Steel owns a 380,000-square-foot facility on the Ohio River in McKees Rocks. Pa. It operates out of 240,000 square feet and leases out the rest. It stocks anywhere from 16,000 to 22,000 tons of carbon and coated steels, depending on market demand, and employs a workforce of 60. About 80 percent of its orders undergo some value-added processing before shipment, including slitting, blanking, cut-to-length and shearing. The company did $70 million in business in 2010 and projects sales of $75 million to $80 million this year.
Lane Steel strives for continuous improvement and is always looking to reduce its manpower cost per ton, says Paul Gedeon. Shearing operations are particularly labor-intensive, repetitive and strenuous, often requiring two or three workers to maneuver heavy blanks into position for trimming. It’s the type of job that makes employees want to work somewhere else, he says. “We felt that if we could find a way to take the heavy labor out of the job, we’d have a better chance of retaining employees, along with boosting productivity. We decided to look at automatic shearing systems, only to discover that there were none. So we invented our own, with our vendor Automated Robotic Systems.”
Automated Robotic Systems LLC is a systems integrator based in Slippery Rock, Pa. Wayne Swift, vice president and general manager of ARS, notes that robots are used for similar applications, such as feeding metal sheets into automated forming machines for multi-bending operations, but he had never seen a system for automating the shearing process before being approached by Lane Steel. Working with personnel at Lane, ARS was able to integrate a robotic arm with a guillotine shear, achieving precision and speed far beyond the capabilities of any human being.
Lane and ARS have spent the past year working the bugs out of a system that incorporates a Standard guillotine shear fed by a six-axis Kuka robotic arm with a 2,200-pound capacity. Using a vacuum lift, the robot picks blanks from a stack and places them on a load table in front of the shear. Software then signals a carriage on the table to slide the blank precisely into position under the shear knife. If more than one side needs to be trimmed, the robot will lift and rotate the blank. Sheared parts go into a Canrack stacker.
The robot operates within a safety cage. If anyone attempts to enter the cage during production, the system automatically shuts down. The robotic shearing operation can be manned by a single operator, who does not require extensive training. The touch screen commands are very intuitive, Swift says. “It is really easy to use,” adds Mike Gedeon. “You just dial in the size sheet you have, what size parts you want, and whether to scrap in the beginning or the end, and it pretty much does the rest.”
The designers of the system at Lane claim it can shear steel sheets from 0.024- to 0.250-inch thick with starting dimensions of up to 5 feet by 12 feet and maintain a tolerance of plus/minus 0.008-inch.
“Handling large quarter-inch steel blanks is a nontrivial exercise for a human being. It can take several minutes and two or three workers to load a crane and move each 600-pound piece of metal into position. The cycle time for the robot to do it is a matter of 15 or 20 seconds. And the robot never takes a lunch break,” Swift adds.
While the system continues to feed one blank through the shear, the robot returns to the feed stack and picks up the next piece of material to be processed. There is virtually no downtime between sheets, says Swift, who estimates the new system is at least five times more productive than conventional automated shears. “It basically achieves a better product and cuts down on material-handling time. The end result is high yield optimization and productivity,” he says.
ARS is ready to roll out the system to other service centers. Cost of the robot, table and software integration, not counting the shear and stacker, is about $340,000, Swift estimates. Systems can be scaled down for companies that handle lighter materials and do not need such a heavy-duty robot. New users may be able to retrofit their existing shears into the integrated system.
“Our robot is probably double the size that it needs to be, but we want it to run for a long time,” says Paul Gedeon. “Every time they make adjustments, we get more output. The cycle times get better and better. Every day, we are happier and happier with it.”