Robots in the foundry

Many years ago I had the opportunity to attend the opening of a greenfield aluminium foundry that had won a major contract for an automotive OEM. That was nearly 20 years ago and thank goodness the foundry still exists but under a different name. The group that made the sizeable investment especially at that time – R130 million – has disinvested from the foundry industry. The investment in the foundry and the existing foundries and machine shops in the group was close to R600 million and was part of the group’s powerful strategy statement of: “The leverage of core competence in Industrial Design and Engineering in the context of South African competitiveness and, to deliver Engineered Products into the large markets of developed economies.”

The foundry was the showpiece for the South African foundry industry and the prospects for the future were very encouraging. The world started to look at our foundry industry with new eyes as the foundry had been conceptualised and constructed under the guidance of a leading German aluminium company. A technical aid agreement that included proven gravity die-casting technology, project management, plant and equipment selection, technical assistance during production and training.

Installed was the latest state-of-art equipment that was available at the time – from melting to finishing. But what astounded me during the factory visit was that with all the millions of rand spent on the equipment and processes the whole operation had to rely on the human interface of placing a filter on the mould filling. The filling of the runner is improved by the use of a filter. The better filling of the runner is mainly an effect of the decreased velocity of the melt. The reduction of the melt velocity results in reduced surface turbulence and less splashing. Reduced surface turbulence and splashing of the melt prevents the incorporation of oxide films and air in the melt, which has an overall beneficial effect on the quality of the castings.

But this placing of the filter was being done by a human and we all know about the fragility of a human especially if it involves the repetitive task of placing a filter that is vital to the operation and end product. I wondered why the use of an automated system such as a robot, had not been used. Nobody had an answer for me.

Apart from repetitive tasks, robots can assist with strenuous – and sometimes dangerous – functions that take place in factories. If it is a labour-intensive exercise where workers could tire or even be injured in the process, especially with the lifting and moving of heavier items, this is a task that can be handled through robotic automation. Not only will robots help prevent unnecessary injuries and dangers in this regard, but they also remove the need for many hands to touch the same surface. In current COVID-19 pandemic times, this is particularly useful as the world tries to be more health conscious and we move towards becoming a touchless society.

In our foundry industry there is only one foundry that I know of that is successfully making use of robots during the production process and that foundry is growing. And creating employment. Isn’t it about time you looked at robots in your operation? Read the story further on in the magazine where a company has adopted collaborative robotic (Cobot) assistance for fettling operations.