A smartphone is without a doubt the most frequently handled device in the world. It’s very likely the most fumbled as well. The PopGrip, a circular handle that sticks to the underside of a phone with a stem that expands like an accordion, was born out of the need to get a better grip on a smartphone without compromising its portability.
Savvy marketers soon saw the value of the one-and-a-half inch diameter circular knob as prime real estate for building brand awareness. A mini mobile billboard inexpensive enough to give away at trade shows, events or through other channels. Such is the dynamic that made branded PopGrips the hottest product for iClick, a Seattle-based purveyor of promotional products.
As iClick increased production to meet growing demand, the final assembly and packaging process was especially stressed. This is where, once adorned with the logo of the sponsoring company, a finished PopGrip is inserted onto a custom-printed card, typically containing operational instructions and promotional content, and placed into a polybag.
“Originally the PopGrips were manually inserted onto the cards at one station, and then transferred to another station to be placed in an automated bagging machine,” said Steve White, iClick’s Executive Vice President of Production.
“It was a labor intensive process, and even with a crew of four or more people we couldn’t keep up with the demand. Plus, it was dull and repetitive duty; finding people to do it for any length of time was difficult.”
Driven by the need to maximize the capacity of the bagging machine while moving employees to higher-skilled jobs, White and his team began looking for potential automation solutions. A series of Google searches provided additional inspiration, and after culling through a myriad of options, an ABB dual-arm, IRB 14000 YuMi® collaborative robot appeared to be worth a further look.
ABB referred iClick to House of Design (HOD), an ABB System Integrator known for developing innovative robotic systems for unusual applications. HOD confirmed early in the discovery process that the dual-arm, YuMi collaborative robot was ideally suited for the job, designing a station featuring two dual-arm robots working in sync with each other, carding and bagging the PopGrips.
“The ABB collaborative robots stood out as the best solution,” said White.
“With two dual-arm YuMi we were able to combine two manual processes into one, seamless automated operation.”
The two YuMi are positioned next to each other and handle the same tasks. Because of their proximity the movements of each of the four arms (28 total axes) are carefully coordinated in order to maximize throughput and work within the confined space of the station. HOD used ABB’s RobotStudio® simulation software to experiment with and ultimately program the optimal motion of each arm.
“We use RobotStudio for system configuration and robot reach studies, code testing and rate calculations, just to name a few functions. It is also a powerful sales tool. We are able to create simulations to illustrate our vision for a project. They show cycle speed and product flow so the potential customer can confidently approach a partnership with House of Design, fully understanding that we can indeed solve their manufacturing problem,” said Brandon Schmidt, HOD’s VP of Automation & Robotics.
One YuMi arm picks the PopGrip from the tray and places it on the intermediate assembly station, the other arm picks the card from the card station (stacks of cards), and slides it onto the groove between the bottom and top of the PopGrip, and in the same motion while still holding the card, elevates and slides the full piece (card and PopGrip) into the bagger. And then it fires the IO on the robot to tell the bagger that the piece is in the bag.
“Because we are combining two manual tasks into one automated process, the station performs the work of four people and feeds the automated bagging system at full capacity,” said Chad Svedin, HOD Project Manager.
“The system can also work on different orders at the same time, with the IO on the robot indicating which of several dedicated conveyors to route the bagged PopGrips.”
YuMi’s collaborative characteristics and human-like dimensions allow the robots to be placed in the same area and within the same general footprint as the manual operators. If YuMi senses an unexpected impact, such as a collision with a co-worker, it will immediately pause its motion, with a restart as easy as pressing play on a remote control. Should contact with a human occur, YuMi’s magnesium skeleton covered with soft, rounded padding absorbs and dampens any impact.
This eliminates the need for the protective cages that are typically required with traditional industrial robots, an important criterion for the busy PopGrip production floor. “The ability to maintain an open factory floor makes it easier for our operators to approach the station, replenish card trays, pull rejects, or do whatever else, without interrupting the work flow,” said White.
Up and running by February 2018, it was iClick’s first experience with robotic automation. It was such a success that they installed second system, identical to the first, six months later. Adding additional flexibility, the bagging systems can be adapted to pick, sort and package many of their other iClick promotional products, such as the iCam Covers, Ring Holders, Webkeys and Pixie Lights.
Since the introduction of the automated carding and bagging equipment the former iClick manual operators have been moved to supervisory jobs on the production team, where the daily routine is far more satisfying and the career advancement path far more tangible.
The innovative design has also been a boon for HOD, as they have branded it the “FlexBagger,” which consists of either one or two YuMis along with the Autobag® system from Automated Packaging Systems. It is now being marketed for other small product bagging applications.