Robotic press tending cells help Metal-Era become largest commercial roofing-edge component manufacturer in the US

ABB robots deliver improved throughput, worker safety

Metal-Era of Waukesha, Wisconsin is the largest commercial roofing-edge component manufacturer in the United States, with an extensive line of fascia, coping, and gutter and downspout products for flat and low slope roofed commercial buildings.

It has grown steadily by offering a broad portfolio of superior products, in-depth application experience and exceptional customer service. This unique value proposition has helped Metal-Era cultivate its own line of products, as well as those made specifically for partners such as Firestone, Carlisle, Versico and many others.

Shortly after the 2008 recession, as order volumes began to increase, Metal-Era had problems keeping up with the demand for its metal fascia products. Typically made in lengths up to 12 feet, with significant variations in edge shape and installation interfaces per SKU, the manual fabricating process was labor intensive and the long, supple parts difficult to handle.  

In order to reduce waste, relieve the physical stress on the operators and run with limited interruption, Metal-Era installed four automated press brake tending cells over a ten-year period, each featuring an ABB six-axis, articulated arm robot. The robots provided operational efficiencies that helped Metal-Era keep up with the demand of its most popular product line, grow from $20M to $62M in revenue, and move from 25 to 110 production employees in just over ten years.

Robotic Upgrades

This period of dramatic growth coincided with the coming-of-age of industrial robotics in non-automotive applications, highlighted by prodigious advancements in affordability, performance, programming simplicity and ease of maintenance.

Aware of these advancements and eager to continuously improve its operation, Metal-Era contracted with IAS Inc., an ABB systems integrator (referred to within ABB as a Value Provider) based in nearby New Berlin, WI, to overhaul several of the existing press brake cells and build an entirely new one.

“After thoroughly reviewing the press brake operations at Metal-Era, we proposed some renovations to the existing cells, much of which we also incorporated in the design of the new cell,” said Andrew Fischler, IAS project engineer. “A big part of it is replacing older robot models with the new generation ABB IRB 6700. We also designed an innovative vacuum suction end-of-arm-tool.”

The IRB 6700 is part of the seventh generation of ABB large robots. In addition to enhanced speed, payload and accuracy, power consumption has been lowered by 15 percent, total cost of ownership has been reduced by up to 20 percent, and maintenance has been optimized, doubling the time between service intervals compared to comparable robot models.   

The IRB 6700 models installed in the Metal-Era cells have a 155 kg payload, more than enough strength to handle the intricate end-of-arm-tool (EOAT) and steadily place the 12-foot fascia part in the press.  They also have a 2.85 meter reach, enough to access all points of the cell where the robots pick and place the part before, during and after the press bending operation.

The IAS-designed EOAT features 12 vacuum suction cups mounted on two shafts that are coupled together to form a channel for the vacuum conduit. The entire EOAT shaft can rotate to pick and place the metal fascia sheets without the robot colliding with the press. The EOAT maintains a secure grip on the part while in the press, precisely repositioning the part through the various intricate bends of each cycle. 

ABB’s IRB 6700 at work

Cell components and programming

The bend cells include all the equipment and processes needed to transform stacks of raw metal stock into finished lengths of roof fascia. It starts with 4 foot x 12 foot metal sheets being sheared into widths up to 16 inches, and continues through operations to punch holes for installation mounting,  notch corners for product variations that may need to be folded, and  stamp one of the many possible product logos. IAS specified the equipment and designed the gantry systems that move the blanks between each punch, notch and logo (PNL) station.

Once through the PNL process, the robot picks up the part and loads it into the press.  After positioning and repositioning the part in the press for a series of up to fivebends, the robot places the part on an outfeed conveyor for packaging and shipping.

“Approximately 55% of Metal-Era business is related to fascia product, and 95% of that is manufactured on our robotic systems,” said Jim Denomme, Metal-Era Chief Operating Officer.  “We manufacture some products that are never touched by humans until the part is finished.”

Each cell is able to process up to 16 different products, with the transition often being as simple as changing the program on the robot controller interface and changing out the raw material.

IAS performed all the programming and commissioning of the cells using RobotStudio®, ABB’s offline programming software that enables users to create, simulate and test a complete robot system in a virtual environment.   

“With RobotStudio we are able to simulate the location and movement of all key components of the cell, allowing us to experiment with different layouts and optimize the robot paths and part manipulations,” said Fischler. “It was incredibly helpful in programming the precise placements in the press for each part, and in achieving the best cycle times. Programming in the virtual environment works through any trial and error prior to installation, greatly expediting the commissioning process.”

Operational improvements

The new and recently upgraded robot cells continue to improve Metal-Era’s fascia line performance. Throughput has improved approximately 15% and there is very little waste, both in unsaleable product and application of human resources.

“We are a higher mix, lower volume operation. The main driver for us is efficiency, achieving consistent quality and addressing safety and ergonomic issues with our factory staff,” said Denomme. “The robots are able to efficiently handle a wide range of product variations, handling the parts carefully and placing them in the press precisely every time. The quality of product is much more consistent as compared to product off our manual press operations.”

The 5% of Metal-Era’s fascia products that are too big to run through the robotic cells or are not programmed into the system, require two shear operators, one notch and hole-punch operator and two press operators. Comparatively, it takes only two and a half employees per shift to run the five robot cells.

This has enabled Metal-Era to significantly reduce the physical stress put on its employees and move them into other areas of the plant, allocating resources to more value-added jobs that better support the growth of the business.

“Our business has grown, in part due to the efficiency gains of adding robotic cells. I am very happy to say we have never had to lay off an employee because we added robot automation,” said Denomme.

The increased throughput has allowed Metal-Era to enhance its Quick-to-Ship program, a next-day and express shipment program for fascia products. Now, a greater variety of products, sizes, and colors will ship within one to three days of order, the most extensive expedited delivery program in the industry.

Future Plans

With the success of automating fascia production and the continued advancements in industrial robotic technology, Metal-Era continues to investigate the use of robotics on additional products.

Denomme concluded, “One of the keys to Metal-Era’s future success is the ability to reduce our manufacturing costs by being able to produce products with greater efficiency and increased quality. The expanded use of robotics allows us to achieve these critical goals and results in enhanced customer satisfaction.”

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About the author

Alex Miller

Alex Miller is a longtime ABB contractor working with the company's robotics business.
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