High tech in harsh environment and a precise grasp into the crate

Feb 5, 2024

Krenhof Kapfenberg can look back on decades of experience as a forging competence center. The Austrian company forges for the automotive, aviation and construction industries, among others. And it does so using smart technologies that can also withstand the extremely harsh work environment in the forge. The company uses laser scanners from SICK, and a sophisticated software solution from Heitec Systemtechnik. Together, they give the robot precise instructions on exactly where to grasp.

Loading port with robot
Loading port with robot

Forged aluminum parts, chassis components, medical technology – these are just a few of the areas where Krenhof – now a wholly owned subsidiary of Pankl Racing – is regarded as the proven “forging experts”. The company, which is headquartered in Kapfenberg in Upper Styria, processes around 3,000 tonnes of aluminum annually. A difficult job where – despite the especially harsh working conditions – high tech solutions and automation have found application for some time now.

 

Sophisticated robotics solution in a modern forging plant

Much of the feedstock material to be processed is large and heavy. Likewise for a recently modernized forging plant that is used to produce parts that would simply be too heavy for the employees to handle. A situation that calls for a sophisticated robotics solution. Gernot Reiterer, Production Manager at Krenhof Kapfenberg, explains it like this: “What we do here is process bar material, which is cut with a circular saw in the previous work step and then brought to the loading zone of the furnace in wire mesh boxes by means of “Ameise” trucks. A robot removes the bar material from the box and places it on the furnace belt. The challenge with this, of course, is ensuring the robot knows exactly where it needs to grasp.” Furthermore, the boxes in which the aluminum bars are delivered are clad in sheet metal for additional process stability as the parts must not be allowed to get stuck.

The blanks are brought to the loading zone in wire mesh boxes.
The blanks are brought to the loading zone in wire mesh boxes.
The blanks are brought to the loading zone in wire mesh boxes.
The blanks are brought to the loading zone in wire mesh boxes.

The right sensor solution for the robot

What sounds trivial in the beginning, turns out to be quite a challenging task in the work environment at Krenhof. Gernot Reiterer says: “Everything you touch here leaves a black mark. That comes from the graphite/water mixture that we spray onto the steel forging die as a release agent. The water evaporates off leaving a graphite dust that ends up all over the plant, of course.” This requires a robust solution to ensure the robot can continue to grip unerringly day in day out, because the large quantity of dust quickly presents a challenge for image acquisition. The specialists at Heitec Systemtechnik therefore decided for a LMS4000 2D LiDAR sensor from SICK, which delivers information to the in-house developed evaluation software.

2D LiDAR sensors
Very fast 2D LiDAR sensor for precise and demanding measuring tasks
LMS4000
The solution with the LMS4000 2D LiDAR sensor delivers information to the evaluation software from Heitec.
The solution with the LMS4000 2D LiDAR sensor delivers information to the evaluation software from Heitec.
The solution with the LMS4000 2D LiDAR sensor delivers information to the evaluation software from Heitec.
The solution with the LMS4000 2D LiDAR sensor delivers information to the evaluation software from Heitec.

The requirement: a rugged sensor technology

As part of its modernization measures, Heitec expanded its existing robot and control system into a fully automated “loading zone”. Herbert Steininger, Team Leader Automation at Heitec says: “Besides the work environment, other issues to be addressed here were the cycle time and making teaching in the robot as simple as possible in order to achieve a quick and reliable turnover at the removal point.” This is decisive because the robot initially doesn't know where the raw material is located. Furthermore, the surface of the aluminum is highly reflective. “We were therefore searching for a cost-effective solution different from traditional bin picking systems with a camera,” explains Steininger and adds: “This calls for a rugged sensor technology that can reliably deliver image data to our evaluation software.”

The robot places the blank on the furnace belt which transports it into the furnace in preparation for the forging process.
The robot places the blank on the furnace belt which transports it into the furnace in preparation for the forging process.
The robot places the blank on the furnace belt which transports it into the furnace in preparation for the forging process.
The robot places the blank on the furnace belt which transports it into the furnace in preparation for the forging process.

Scanning range, scanning frequency and resolution – an impressive sensor solution

“The LMS4000 impressed us with its scanning range, scanning frequency and resolution. We therefore performed trials and tests with the system, which worked right away,” recounts Steininger. The laser scanner from SICK was then mounted onto an electrical axis that passes the sensor over the box at high speed while the robot is bringing an aluminum bar to the furnace belt. Using the individual sectional views and the movable axis, the software from Heitic creates a three-dimensional image (point cloud) of the parts. The automation expert Steininger adds: “Our software identifies the uppermost part that needs to be gripped and calculates the optimal gripping position. The robot then moves to that position, takes the bar using a vacuum gripper, and places it on the furnace belt. As the part is being placed on the furnace belt, the next scan run is started.”

The software calculates the exact position of the blank and forwards this to the robot.
The software calculates the exact position of the blank and forwards this to the robot.
The software calculates the exact position of the blank and forwards this to the robot.
The software calculates the exact position of the blank and forwards this to the robot.

Fault-free operation since commissioning

“The LMS4000 is the perfect choice for this kind of gripping application in harsh environments,” explains Matej Nujic, Vision Specialist at SICK Austria. “Furthermore, the scanning frequency of 600 hertz allows a speedy process at around 0.8 meters per second. As an extreme accuracy of less than a millimeter is not required in this case, the system was absolutely adequate. The result was an especially robust and cost-effective solution. A traditional camera system would have cost five to ten times the price of the laser scanner,” says Nujic.

That was not the only reason for choosing the laser scanner according to Gernot Reiterer, who as the production manager at Krenhof in Kapfenberg is also particularly interested in reliability of course – despite, or perhaps because of the demanding environment. And he has only good things to report in this regard: “The system has been operating absolutely fault-free since it was commissioned – that is really pleasing. We made the right decision with this solution.”

From left: Gernot Reiterer (Krenhof Kapfenberg), Herbert Steininger (Heitec Sytemtechnik) and Matej Nujic (SICK Austria).
From left: Gernot Reiterer (Krenhof Kapfenberg), Herbert Steininger (Heitec Sytemtechnik) and Matej Nujic (SICK Austria).
From left: Gernot Reiterer (Krenhof Kapfenberg), Herbert Steininger (Heitec Sytemtechnik) and Matej Nujic (SICK Austria).
From left: Gernot Reiterer (Krenhof Kapfenberg), Herbert Steininger (Heitec Sytemtechnik) and Matej Nujic (SICK Austria).

The next step

One LMS is totally sufficient for parts and materials like these aluminum bars. An extension of the system is already in the planning at Heitic, however: “We have already developed a system with a two-scanner solution. This enables us to achieve even better results, even for significantly more complex parts or especially strong shadowing or reflections,” reports Herbert Steininger. Clear proof of the diverse possibilities that a very good laser scanner together with a sophisticated application software opens up – it is not always necessary to use a camera.

 

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