"The current sanding process of our Solid Surface washbasins, shower trays and wall panels can no longer meet increasing customer demand. What is the best way to tackle the automation and optimisation of this process?" - Group Nivelles contacted Sirris to find an answer to this question.
The family business Group Nivelles N.V. was founded in 1994 in Sint-Truiden and is a manufacturer and distributor of three brands: Assenti (bathroom furniture), Dzignstone (Solid Surface showers, washbasins and wall panels) and I-Drain® (a patented drain system for showers and washbasins). Group Nivelles distributes its products nationally and internationally and currently employs around 45 people. Due to increasing demand, the company moved all its activities to Gingelom, where the production space for the high-quality 'Solid Surface' composite material was further expanded in 2018.
Successful labour-intensive product
Solid surface products are produced in open or closed moulds, depending on the type of product. After curing and demoulding, a manual sanding process with orbital sander takes out the imperfections and ensures the desired appearance and smoothness. Today's sanding process is not only labour-intensive, it is also ergonomically demanding. Small dust particles in the immediate working environment of the operators are unavoidable despite professional extraction. Wearing dust masks therefore remains a necessity for the operators. The increasing demand for Solid Surface and the labour-intensive manual processing of the products creates a new bottleneck in production. Automation is therefore an imperative.
Despite the large production volumes, the batch size remains rather limited in practice due to large product variety. Due to the numerous requirements and preconditions (variety of products, dimensional constraints, manual processing, customised work, etc.), it was not easy for Group Nivelles to find a suitable solution.
Together with Sirris, an ideal picture was drawn up in which total automation would be the solution. In order to achieve the goal, the specifications were laid down. The many requirements do not make finding such a total automation easy. Moreover, a sub-optimal solution did not offer an acceptable ROI (return on investment).
Group Nivelles therefore considered semi-automating the sanding process using cobots and force-controlled sanding modules. For this purpose the main focus was on Isybot and the Robotiq-sanding kit. Based on the experience with cobots and power-driven processes available at Sirris, a feasibility test was planned with the sanding kit. The first results seemed promising.
Although this is not the total solution that Group Nivelles wants to achieve in the long term, it could be a step towards becoming familiar with robots. Moreover, such an interim solution requires a lower investment, so an acceptable ROI can also be achieved with smaller batches. If Group Nivelles wishes to extend the automation process to other product groups after implementation, this interim solution makes the step much smaller.
Ease of use
Ease of use is still one of the most important specifications when considering future automation. The feasibility test carried out by Sirris therefore served not only to assess the result after sanding, but also to assess the usability and ease of use. For the size of products such as wall panels or custom washbasins from Group Nivelles, the range of a cobot is too limited to finish a product in one go. Through simulations the limitations were mapped out and together concepts were worked out to finish the products in several steps.
Based on this practical information, Group Nivelles can make a strategic and well-founded choice.
Do you also have a sanding or deburring process that you would like to automate and do you have doubts about the feasibility? Feel free to contact us!
(Source picture above: Group Nivelles)
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