Intuitive Drilling with Accuracy and Speed

Learn how one customer was able to fully customize what was at first a dangerous operation, and adjust their FANUC robot capabilities on nearly any desired drillable material, while improving quality and repeatability.
by John Burg
Mar 18, 2021

Learn how one customer was able to fully customize what was at first a dangerous operation, and adjust their FANUC robot capabilities on nearly any desired drillable material, while improving quality and repeatability. Find out how robotic automation increased production 4x faster than their previous manual processes. Today's technology allows using the robot as a drilling device drilling and tapping up to 1" holes. See how using a vision system to locate the detail on a part and drill in relation to that part is not only less expensive, takes up less floor space, but also has more versatility than a machine tool - a process that few machine tools can accomplish. With guaranteed accuracy, capability, and repeatability, the result brings significant ROI. If you are currently using a crane to lift and rotate large parts and materials due to sheer weight, stop putting your team at risk, join us to learn more!


John Burg: As it says, my name is John Burg. I am the founder of a company called Acieta. We're in the robotics integration business and have been for almost 38 years. By my friends I'm referred to as an old, it starts with F. And in the robotics business we're going to talk about something that is so opposite of what Jan just talked about and that he is off talking about how we're going to learn everything about a part before we actually build it and then as we build it, we're going to track it. And quite frankly, I was very, very interested in his discussion, but this is on the other end of the scale. We're trying to drill holes in steel or other materials and so hopefully it'll give your mind, at least a little mental coffee break here and stuff because I don't think it'll be quite so complex.

John Burg: Basically we're going to talk about something we call intuitive drilling and then what was the problem we were trying to solve and the solution. What some of the results came from that and how it works. I have a video of the system that we built. And then at the end, we say next steps, basically, that was my good friend Julie in our marketing group's time, when she says, "You got to tell him a little bit about Acieta." And so we're going to do that at the very end.

John Burg: Intuitive drilling, basically as it says here, that it's an attempt to customize a machining process, in this case drilling, in large components, that would classically can be done two ways. You can take a very standard drill press or if you're familiar, radial arm drill and move it around over a large workpiece and drill holes. But in many cases, you have to then move the work piece itself to another location and to drill or tap other holes. And it's in this particular case, our customer had been doing this for a long time and they found It's just dangerous, even though they have hoisting equipment, et cetera. The parts can be hard to get a hold of and so they were looking for a way to put holes in their components.

John Burg: And a machine tool big enough, we're talking about parts here that are from six by six up to could be a two or three feet by two or three feet and 20 feet long. To buy a machine tool to drill and tap holes, you're going to get a machine that's so much more capable than that, that you're going to spend a lot of money and to quite frankly, drill holes. And besides that, there are some other capabilities that doing it robotically will help you. Certainly some of the things we were trying to do was improve the quality and the repeatability, absolutely increase the production. In this particular case, we're up to 4x faster than the previous application or previous method, which was manual. And then the other capability that a robot brings is the ability to use machine vision to locate a detail on a part and drill and tap a hole in location to that detail.

John Burg: And that's something that I suspect a machine tool builder could add to their machine, but I have not seen anybody do that. And so where we use machine vision in robotic automation very commonly, in fact, I think we're well past the point of where most of the robots and certainly systems, we ship out, have vision for some use in them. And that's just increasing all the time, et cetera.

John Burg: As it's said, what was the problem? The problem was that we had this manual operation, which required lifting these components onto a machine slash fixture and rotating them and manipulating them around so that they could be drilled. And the solution is that we have taken a standard off the shelf FANUC robot and we have put a drilling spindle on it. And we'll talk about the components here in just a minute. And we have given the ability to manipulate the part by the system itself and so that the operator doesn't have to go in and reposition the part during the process. And then at that point, there's so many guaranteed portions.

John Burg: First, we use the word accuracy. We should probably be more on repeatability, but we have ability. And one of the significant solutions that this brings is that we're going to drill all the holes. We can't accidentally forget one and have the part get down to the next process and there's a hole missing and now, we got rework, et cetera, et cetera. And all of those capabilities brought our customer very significant return on their investment, in the area of probably less than two years.

John Burg: As it says, what was the solution? Well, we simplified the drilling process, which was very dangerous, we provided a complete customized solution. You can see the robot here and the drilling spindle mounted on the kind of silver looking, almost cylinder like device with red hoses going into it. That's our vision camera. That's just an enclosure for our camera that protects the camera from the atmosphere or the environment, I should say. But the rest of it is a off the shelf drilling spindle. And as I mentioned, a standard FANUC robot.

John Burg: What are the benefits? Well, production is always one that our customers love to hear about, how much more can I get in the given period of time? Our best measurement there, about four times. The operator intervention during the process of an assembly, there is none. The operator has to load the component and move it and then take it out when it's complete. There is no manual intervention per se, at least during the process. They are responsible for maintaining the cutting tools and making sure that those are changed out at an appropriate time. The one of the unique capabilities is that their components did require fixturing. They are different shapes. They're not all just as a square standard square shape, some are round and other shapes, and they can put the fixturing on the component offline. The operator can be basically preparing the next part while the system is processing a part. And so the exchange, taking the finished part off and putting the new part on the system is pretty quick. And again, always try to keep the asset, in this case, the robotic drill operating.

John Burg: We certainly had a reduction in scrap. The process is controlled by, as we've talked about before, it's fully programmed. It is not relying on an operator following a list of duties. That is contained within the robot program itself. We talked about fixturing the next part. And so while it is a customized solution, when you start to think about it, it has kind of broad implications for a lot of people who need to drill holes in large components. We talk about steel only because that's such a widely used material, but it doesn't have to be steel. It could be fiberglass or plastics or PVC or almost any other kind of material that might be large that you need to put, in this case, openings and used with a cutting tool.

John Burg: Here's some just pictures of the system. On the left is a kind of an overall view of the robot itself. It is mounted on a device we call an RTU or robotic transport unit, which is controlled by an access drive out of the robot controller. And so the wonderful capability that gives us is regardless of where the robot is taught a point or programed to a point, the track or the platform that's moving the robot is taught for that same point. You can't get the two out of sync, so to speak. If you're going to be six feet down the track and make these moves and then move down another three feet and make more moves, that motion on the track is a 100% tied to the robot controller. As is the headstock, which is shown over here, even further to the left. That is again, using an OX axis out of the robot controller. And so whatever the program calls for the robot or the part to be turned or rotated, the robot knows, program knows exactly where that is.

John Burg: Then some of the more common things. We have a little tool rack over here that holds our cutting tools of various sizes. And we've already talked about the RTU, but down here is kind of a unique device. This is a support for the drilling process. When you have a long tubular shaped part and you're going to drill a pretty good size hole, say even up to one inch, if you just support it on both ends, the material, unless it's has tremendous structural integrity, will bow. And so we have a device that goes along with the robot and wherever it's going to drill, it raises up underneath the part and supports the parts so that the material does not bow during. And if you're familiar with machining of steel, there's a lot of forces and lots of times you can get chatter. And so that support helps from the part actually vibrating or chattering while the cutting process is going on.

John Burg: Then there's another view over here on the right, that shows more detail on the drilling spindle itself. It has inherently that it's from a company called PushCorp and it has inherently in it, a tool changing capability. And of course a servo drive too. And it is a water cooled spindle. We have a little radiator type air cool, air over water cooler that keeps the spindle cool for maximum operation over time.

John Burg: And just another view of the system from the back. You can see the robot and you can see the support, the pneumatic support out here, operators, HMI out in front, et cetera. And a little bit bigger view. This is the robot controller here. And so the cables for the robot itself, the OX axis driving the RTU. And of course the headstock all are driven out of this controller. And then this image just shows the teach Bennett hanging on the front of the controller, which the operator would not need to get to very often. They can do most of their work through the user HMI that's outside of the work envelope. It doesn't show in this view, but there's a light curtain that runs across.

John Burg: This particular installation, the system is set up against a wall. There's basically no access to the back of the system without opening one of the safety interlocked gates, but the front is completely open and that's protected by a light beam. The operator, if someone would walk through all the robots and operation, it simply goes into a Bence alarm, we call it. And when they walked back out, they can hit the cycle start and take right off from wherever they were. There's no gates or devices, which is another advantage over many machine tools, would have a full enclosure, and there'd be very large guarding that would have to be moved out on the way to exchange the part. Oh, and here can see highlighted in just the red lines here is the safety or the light beam. And then there's just simply a physical fencing on both ends of the cell.

John Burg: Here we are at an operation, hopefully the video's coming through. This is just going to show you the robot moves into a position, rotates the part and drills. And we have used both acetylene drills, when necessary to provide a pre-start hole. And we've also, in most cases we find we can just drill with the full size tool. You can see the support they're raising to support the drilling process. And there is no compliance built into, I know people, if you're familiar with these devices, you might wonder if there's some kind of compliance that's protecting the end of arm. There is done. It's simply, we're just simply providing the drilling force to the spindle, right through the operation of the machine.

John Burg: And I do want to point out that a robot is not as rigid as a machine tool. If you were to watch the exact same cutting processes being done on a large machine tool, you would see very little motion, et cetera. And a robot on the other hand, because it's what we call a serial link device where each axis is attached to the axis before it, there's theoretically mechanical play that can build up so you don't have the same rigidity. However, these modern robots with their drive systems, et cetera, have come to the point where we can withstand pretty significant forces pushing back on the robot and provide this capability. Having been in this process for a long time or in the robotics business for a long time, I suspect we wouldn't have even attempted such a thing maybe even 10 years ago, certainly more than that. But modern day robots can withstand these kinds of forces. Of course, they have to be properly selected.

John Burg: They have, as it says, become rigid enough to do machining operations, including drilling and tapping of steel. There's a lot of machining going on in other materials. There's things going on with actually using a milling type cutters, to do sculpture, almost type, using 3D models and driving the robot locations, et cetera. But there's very few that we know of that are out machining steel.

John Burg: Just jumped through a little bit about Acieta. As I mentioned before, we've been in the robotic integration business for a long time. These are some of the various activities we've done. Principally our customer base is working in some kind of metal. Steel is very common, but aluminum, brass. We have done on large number of machine load unload systems, as in thousands. We've done several robotic welding systems, again, probably in the thousands plus. And one of the areas which is very active right now is what we call press brake tending, where if you're familiar with standard press brake, they're very common tool in many fabrication facilities. We have a solution we call RIBS or robotically integrated bending solutions for a press brake tending. And if you have an interest in that area, if you go to our website and see, you can see some video of those types of applications.

John Burg: We have two locations. I work out of the Council Bluffs,Iowa facility, which if you're not familiar with Council Bluffs, we're right acrossthe river from Omaha, Nebraska. We've been in that facility now since about 2005. And we have another facility in Waukesha, Wisconsin, which is a suburb of Milwaukee. We are a 100% owned by a company called Mitsui USA, which is owned by Mitsui Limited from Tokyo and have been a Mitsui organization now since about 2007 or so.

John Burg: One of the things we really pride ourselves on is our service capability, it's a 24/7. We have a hotline. We guarantee if you call our hotline at any time of the day or night or whatever, that you will get a call back within an hour or less. If it was a system, if you're calling about a system that Acieta built, that technician has full access to all the documentation about your system down to even robot programs from when we left and we encourage our customers to send us their programs on a regular basis so that we can keep our archives current. And so they can, in many, many cases, they can help maybe a third shift operator that's struggling. They can help get him back into production without a service call at all. But we do also guarantee to be onsite within 24 hours, usually less. We sell parts and training and we do preventative maintenance programs.

John Burg: We always like to finish kind of with this picture. It kind of brings us back to our history. Here, as you can see, we have a very high end horse-drawn buggy with these two elegantly dressed ladies. And the discussion always is if we'd have asked Henry Ford what we wanted, he'd have asked us what we wanted, we just said, "We just want a faster horse." And of course, Henry Ford and others had a different vision. And today, most of us are envious of these types of vehicles as shown in the slide.

John Burg: And that's what we try to bring to our customers is we try to help them understand that they need to reconsider how they do their manufacturing processes. Can it be operated? We have no desire to sell a solution that won't be successful. And so we provide, I think, a very consultative type selling process to help not only focus on what should be done and can be done, but what shouldn't be done. And that's just as big a discussion, and especially with first time users, because many times we find they want to go, they want to do it all. And sometimes that just doesn't make sense if they don't have experience, et cetera. Here we are.

Stephen LaMarca: John, that was awesome. We've got a few questions that came in here, but I would like to start with, I think it's really cool that with your example, with your robot, your automated cell with drilling, it shows there were some comments that, and you even touched on the fact that a robot will be less rigid, even a high end industrial robot like a solid yellow FANUC is probably your most rigid robotic option. But a robot will still be less rigid than something like a CNC machine. I think what's really cool about your example and what you guys do is with your entire automation cell, it's sure, a robot is less rigid than a CNC machine, but the fact that you have all of these other automation techniques along with the robot, you yield a higher quality result in your end part coming out of the cell because the robot and the entire cell in general is able to tackle something more efficiently, such as fixturing.

Stephen LaMarca: AMT actually has a manufacturing test bed that I started using back in 2016 and our first piece of tech that we actually implemented was a desktop five axis CNC mill. And five axis and CNC is some of the most accurate and precision equipment you can get your hands on these days. And one of my first projects with no experience whatsoever in machining was making a one, two, three block. What does any starting machinists do? Is make their own one, two, three block. And my first crack at making at least a half scale one, two, three block, because a desktop CNC machine actually has a quite small work envelope. The first part that came off the machine, a CNC machine that is not perfectly rigid, but it's incredibly rigid and drills essentially perfect holes as long as everything's bolted down and tight and tightened to the correct torque spec, the first part that came off, those holes were not aligned at all.

Stephen LaMarca: You didn't need to be an advanced robotic vision system to tell that those holes were not good. And I think even though a robot might not be as rigid as a CNC machine, what you guys were able to accomplish is if you allow a robot to have the proper vision system and its programming is done right, all the other little factors that a CNC might disregard or at least a programmer might disregard, makes up for the fact that an automated robot system is less rigid and actually produces a, a higher quality part.

Stephen LaMarca: Our first question that we actually got in was a radial arm drills, slowly getting lost to history? Or staged to make a comeback?

John Burg: Wow. What a great question. I suspect that we will see radial arm drills, quite frankly, long after I'm gone. There are certainly applications. You can buy a new one today, no question about it, but the fact of the matter is, and this kind of goes back Stephen, to your point. The fact is that there's less and less people that are capable of going out and applying a radial arm drill to a process. And so employers are looking to put that knowledge base in the machine tool and yes, it has to be developed. And we can't break the machining rules of how we remove metal, just because we have a CNC machine, but we're always going to find drill presses and standard Bridgeport milling machines and radial arm drills and all of those types of devices, I think, especially in prototype tool room type applications. Fewer and fewer all the time in actual production machining.

Stephen LaMarca: Rebecca, you have any hot takes?

Rebecca Kurfess: I do actually. And it's kind of related to the next question. How do cells like this overcome the comparative lack of rigidity in an arm versus a dedicated machine tool? Which I believe you pretty much answered. Actually, most of my questions that I wrote down, you then answered. That's kind of a bummer for me, but also a good thing. First, I want to say, I think it's really cool that you've embraced this sort of flexible manufacturing. I think including the robotic arm in production gives you the opportunity. You showed that figure, with all of the list of things that a robotic arm can do. You have drilling, but you have welding, you have probing, you have all sorts of things. But back to the stiffness, I was curious how hard of materials you can machine. You can do steel, which is pretty good. But I was wondering how hard of a material you can get before the force that you're experiencing during machining is overcome by the hardness.

John Burg: Yeah. To be honest with you, Rebecca, we don't know. Our customer actually, I will full disclosure. When our customer brought to this application to us we told them that we should set up a proof of concept and it was a significant investment. And of course the downside was that we would prove it can't be done. However, it would have dramatically reduced their overall investment of building the whole system. To be honest, they were up to the, hey, we think it's going to work. And so we also thought it was going to work. I don't want you to think that we just went into ti blind, but the first time, we did do some very early testing. And before we had the whole system built with the track and all of that, we took the robot, we got the spindle, we put tools in it, we set up material and we started drilling holes just to end.

John Burg: And we learned a lot. We found out that, but we don't really know to answer your question. And I certainly can't believe that we would ever even think about heat treated materials, like steel, et cetera. I think that would be way beyond. And I want to be absolutely clear. We do not see the solution replacing machine tools by any means. It's another option to buying. The problem with the machine tool that would handle this size part, it would come with a 50 horsepower spindle and it needs 20 or 15. And so they get so much more capability than they really need, but it's also reflective in the cost of the machine.

Rebecca Kurfess: Yeah, I agree. It's definitely a great option to have this technology available. Related to that as well, so you mentioned, all the processes that your arm can do, have you done any case studies or worked with any companies where you've done multiple processes using the same arm? The one you showed here was just drilling, but have you ever done one where you drill and maybe you weld and maybe you probe? Anything like that?

John Burg: If you were to visit a relatively large selection of our customer base, you would find out that we have applied some automation to some very large overall processes. In many cases, you walk into a facility and you'll see a robot in a welding cell or you'll see a robot loading and unloading a machine tool and Acieta has and is on a day to day basis, looking at applications where we're manufacturing the entire component or even an assemble. And so we're forming parts on a press brake, we're taking those formed parts to putting them all together and welding them. We're taking those and stacking them together with others and maybe welding or doing some other kind of fastening process et cetera. When the component comes out or the assembly comes out the far end, it's completed. If you were to look back across that line, you would see the same robot being applied in multiple different applications. It's welding here, but it's loading a machine over here or just doing material handling, et cetera.

Stephen LaMarca: Yeah. I think the largest benefit from a system or an automation cell such as yours is the fact that it's not that it's attacking the part the customer is trying to make with the latest and greatest technology that's available. It's just that you're taking what's already available and you're making sure that every process applied to your workpiece to get this final part out is done perfectly or at least as best as possible. And I'm not trying to sound like I'm slamming on CNC machines because I am not. But you look at an automated, a robot cell and with your cell and you compare that to a CNC machine. A CNC machine runs off of a program file. A huge, tens of thousands of lines of G code to assume that the workpiece is here, assuming the person who programmed the program, did everything right.

Stephen LaMarca: The workpiece is here and I'm the machine and I'm just going to do everything that's prescribed on this checklist on my to do list, which is lines of G code. The cool thing about your automation cell is short. It probably has some program file uploaded to it and some programming done to assume what the initial piece of bar stock is that's going into the cell, but it's really cool seeing this cell because it's got a vision system on it. It's got more than just a to do list and parameters that are coordinate based. It can check its own work with the vision system. I think that's really a lot farther along than we're giving it credit.

John Burg: Yeah, and I think one of the interesting points to your discussion, for example, the machine tool people that are listening will say, "Well, goodness, I can just put a probe in the spindle and I can probe the surface and I can offset holes according to where that surface is, down to 10,000ths of an inch or less." And they certainly can. The issue is in many cases, again, the capability is probably way beyond what was required for this customer's requirement or by this industry. If you go out and look at a building that's being erected out and out of fabricated beams, the precision is not even close to what you would see out of a CNC machine tool. You're talking, it's fractions versus thousandths. But the building doesn't need something built two thousandths.

John Burg: And so what we're trying to do is give it something that's intermediary. It's more back to Ron's comment, it's what is your purpose? What's your use case? And so often we find customers, especially in ag deportment or something like that, where the fact of the matter is let's just use the bucket on a skid stair or a et cetera. The dirt that that bucket's going to dig could care less whether that bucket's a quarter inch wider, but I can tell you the robotic system that welds that bucket, it needs those components in much closer location than a quarter of an inch or we have to use a lot of tools to put the weld in the right place. And so this is a discussion I end up with customers all the time is they say, "Well, my component, it doesn't have to be that precise. Your automation system requires it to be more precise than its use."

John Burg: Yeah, that's true. Let's figure out what's the happy medium? You could probably make it better than you are today which will require less adaptability on the robotic system to weld it. Because many cases they would say, "Well, my operator just adjusts and he just puts the weld in the right location." Of course they do. That's the great thing about a human, but do we really want, up and coming, Rebecca, can you imagine you're ever deciding to put a welding helmet on and become a welder for your occupation? I doubt it. And most people I think of your age group also, don't aspire. Some do and that's great. And I think it's wonderful, but generally those are hard to find. Those people are hard to find that want to stand there and weld all day long.

Rebecca Kurfess: To be fair, I wouldn't say no to a welding class or two. I work with systems that basically do welding and I think that would be pretty neat, but I'm also definitely a nerd. Maybe I'm a little biased.

Stephen LaMarca: I've seen a handful of welders post pictures of their work that they're really proud of on Instagram and be like, you know what? I wouldn't mind to learning how to make a nice, neat little stack of dimes myself. But to go in every day at 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM and do the same thing, working with one of those shields on all day, probably not. A robot at the end of the day probably learns faster and does it better, at least better than me.

Rebecca Kurfess: A couple times I've tried welding. It has been, I would say mildly successful is where I'd put it.

Stephen LaMarca: Nice.

Rebecca Kurfess: Which is probably not what you want in production.

John Burg: Probably not.

Stephen LaMarca: Sure. Well, that was really fun. John, thank you so much. Rebecca.

John Burg: My pleasure.

Stephen LaMarca: That was really great. And it's awesome seeing an implementation of robotics and a vision system that one of my early questions, when I thought to myself when watching that presentation was that's just some industrial robot. Why isn't it a collaborative robot? Then you listen to what it's doing and what Acieta's done and doing all of these little steps, little simple steps perfectly, to make something more complicated done right is actually totally skipping collaborative robot, which is sometimes referred to as the second gen robotics and go, with that vision system, it skips straight ahead to adaptive robots, our third generation of robotics. That's really cool. But again, John, thank you so much for joining us. It was really a pleasure having you.

John Burg
Along with his father, John founded Automated Concepts, Inc., which would eventually grow into Acieta LLC. For nearly 40 years he's devoted most of hi ...
Recent technology News
Lights-out manufacturing is receiving a fair amount of press due to its promise of complete automation. The thinking is that if some automation is good, complete automation is even better!
Robotics evolving at a rapid pace. Homogenizing material properties of AM parts. Composite bridge building. Pattern based statical tools. 3D printed buildings. Here's the latest tech article roundup from this week's Tech Report.
A new generation of startups wants to disrupt the way houses are built by automating production with industrial 3D printers. 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, uses machines to deposit thin layers of plastic, metal, concrete and...
Programming is key to any robotic system because it is how information and instructions are communicated to the robot to make it function and carry out tasks. The most common programming methods for industry robots are teach pendants...
Robotics evolving at a rapid pace. Homogenizing material properties of AM parts. Composite bridge building. Pattern based statical tools. 3D printed buildings. Here's the latest tech article roundup from this week's Tech Report.