Many generations of children sat transfixed as we were transported by Brian Cant or Johnny Ball through the Arched Window into the realm of factoryland. There we watched as bottles or cans rattled around miles of conveyor belt being washed, filled, capped and labelled. This was probably our first introduction to automation, and back then it meant hard automation.
Today, even those who mass produce fairly unchanging products are loathe to opt for hard automation on new lines. Flexibility is all important: flexibility to encompass product changes, maintain the line, cope with volume fluctuations and completely change the purpose of the line or station.
With this in mind it is surprising the number of companies who turn straight to the angle iron and welding torch when putting together a manufacturing line or new station. It’s pretty time consuming to put together, it requires cutting up structural members, drilling holes, bolting and welding, and if you need to make changes you’ll probably have to scrap the lot and start all over.
How much more satisfying to select from a range of lightweight, strong, standard parts and accessories which are quick and easy to put together. And if you need to change or disassemble the line or station, it’s equally simple, and the components can all be reused in your next project. Extruded aluminium systems are manufactured by a number of companies. Parts can either be supplied in a wide range of standard lengths or in some cases supplied to your particular requirements. A huge range of accessories is available for fitting the component parts together, plus other bits and pieces such as end caps, handles, hinges, wire meshes, casters
Time and Precision is an automation specialist which uses a number of different component parts from a range of preferred manufacturers. Although it does sell off the shelf items, many of Time and Precision’s customers make use of the company’s experienced design team and manufacturing facilities. When designing an automation line or station for a customer, Time and Precision likes to prepare a quick mock up using the MiniTec system of extruded aluminium parts. ‘This,’ says Gary Livingstone of Time and Precision, ‘allows us to demonstrate our intention and design better than a drawing alone.’ Being able to put a mock-up together very quickly has helped the company win business. But the MiniTec system is not just used at this stage of the project; Time and Precision uses it extensively in the actual project. It is a sturdy system that can stand up to the rigours of a manufacturing environment and it allows Time and Precision to easily change things as the project develops.
At Bosch Automation you can see similar projects being undertaken. Unlike Time and Precision, Bosch uses all its own parts in the automation projects it undertakes for its customers (unless otherwise specified), and that includes its own system of aluminium extruded parts.
Often the Bosch designed and manufactured automation station is the first experience customers have of the easy to assemble aluminium extrusions. But many soon find plenty of other uses for the system.
NOT JUST AUTOMATION
Aluminium extruded systems are extremely versatile: they are often seen in display panels and cabinets, and they can be used to make additional or mobile working surfaces, for shelving and stacking units. Bosch has a brochure which shows the variety of uses to which its system has been put. From practical automation stations and conveyor units to the whimsical eight man bicycle and the modernist bed.
The systems have become so comprehensive that you can configure structural designs of almost any type. The latest addition from Bosch for example is a new range of modular safety screens, EcoSafe, designed to fence danger areas in the workplace. The EcoSafe systems are an alternative to conventional non-variable steel structures. It is easy to plan and has fully prefabricated elements including frame elements, suspension brackets, locks and latches and coloured trim profiles. The system can be assembled on site making it cheaper to buy and install. EcoSafe has been designed to produce guards which conform to European safety standards EN294 & 811.
Some suppliers of extruded aluminium construction systems also offer CAD packages which can be used to layout and configure the various elements of the system.
The extruded aluminium systems have often been described as Meccano or Lego for grown ups. These systems are certainly not toys as they can be used in genuine industrial environments, but in terms of ease of assembly and re-use the term is a fair description.