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Se 1 | Ep 13
Thinking Big

Last month, MTD magazine visited RODIN Machining in Holland, a company that claims their entire customer process – from customer registration and work preparation to production and invoicing is almost 100% automated with sharp delivery dates. We went along to see what was behind this manufacturing utopia – it turns out that FASTEMS is a crucial factor in achieving this nirvana. By Rhys Williams

About an hour north of Amsterdam in the town of Opmeer is RODIN Machining, a Dutch contract manufacturer that is said to be the first fully automated turning and milling company in the world. To achieve its incredible levels of automation, the company has fully embraced robotisation, self-learning software and artificial intelligence. This was the perfect setting for RODIN and FASTEMS to host an Open House event to demonstrate what can be achieved with the visionary application of leading technology. Along with 300+ guests and dignitaries, MTD magazine couldn’t wait to take a look around!

A start-up business like nothing ever seen before, RODIN is aptly named after François Auguste René Rodin, the 19th century French sculptor who is considered the founder of modern sculpture. An artist with a craftsman-like approach to his work with a unique ability to model complex shapes – the parallels between the artist and the Dutch company are not coincidental. To celebrate the opening of the new facility, the company was presented with one of Rodin’s most famous sculptures, ‘The Thinker’. And this is where the story starts….

The Thinkers and the Drinkers

Founded by Gem Bot, Dennis Oud, Paul Mooij and Ruud Appel, the expertise of the entrepreneurs resides in software and data engineering and subcontract sheet metal manufacturing. As owners of a successful sheet metal business, the entrepreneurs asked why the sphere of machining had yet to reach the levels of end-to-end automation found in the sheet metal industry. The concept was borne, and the entrepreneurs set about turning the idea into a reality.

Coming at the challenge without machining expertise provided a fresh approach that was met with an element of bemusement at EMO 2021. The team laid out their vision and spoke to several exhibitors at the show – and the vision of an automated factory was met with an almost dismissive condemnation. The entrepreneurs presented their plan to Mazak at EMO and confirmed that if they would support RODIN’s journey, RODIN would buy their machines. As RODIN Director Ruud Appel tells MTD magazine: “We wanted to create an autonomous factory without people and only robots. Everyone told us that it wasn’t possible, but we wanted to stretch the bounds of what was possible. So, we started gathering a group of leading suppliers like FASTEMS in CNC automation and asked them searching questions – ‘Have you thought about doing it like this?’ and ‘Why do you always do it like that?’. We wanted to know why everybody thought that historical processes were the only way to proceed. We really wanted to change the mindset.”

Without a customer base or a factory to work from, RODIN decided to take the ‘leap of faith’. “We needed machines that were as versatile as possible and we needed FASTEMS to create the integrations and automation with cutting tools, tool data, workholding, grippers, chucks and software like ERP and CAD/CAM. RODIN and FASTEMS worked together to calculate how to get the most machines into the factory space and create the optimal workflow. There were many iterations and when we were settled upon a final design layout, we set about building the factory and teamed up with our partners to realise the project.”

“We are all about partnering. We needed machines, automation, robots and software – and software and database integration was one of the most important things,” says fellow director Paul Mooij, who is truly superb with software, AI, data management and creating one big loop. “FASTEMS, Mazak and our other partners have done this hundreds of times before – but we wanted to make it smarter than ever before. Smart in a way that all systems communicate with each other. We have only improved upon the existing tricks, not developed them. Along the way, we were met with a lot of ‘you can’t do that’, ‘that is not possible’ and ‘it’s always been done like that’. Our team and our partners agreed that every time we heard those negative phrases, the perpetrator would have to buy the drinks. A lot of people bought beers –which usually yielded solutions, and we managed to change the mindset and have the project delivered.”

How it works

According to RODIN, the process is as simple as signing up as a customer online and then uploading your part design. Talking us through the system, Ruud says: “Customers can upload their 3D design and a PDF file with the tolerances 24/7 and then select material type, quantity and delivery date. A quotation will be delivered in 30 seconds. Upon quotation approval, automated manufacturing starts immediately. Your project is put into the ERP system and as automated as possible, it is turned into machine and robotics programs by the CAM engineers. There are limitations on part sizes, and we typically produce volumes from tens to thousands – but that is it. We are not about shaving seconds off volume production, but creating a steady high-mix flow that will run 24/7 unmanned. While a typical CNC machine runs 1500 to 2000 hours a year, the FASTEMS logo says ‘8760’ referring to the hours in a year – and that is where we want to be with our spindle hours.”

As a start-up, RODIN already works with a wide variety of clients in the construction, machine building, coachbuilding, furniture manufacturing, shipping, automotive industry and petrochemical industries. The components are as diverse as you could imagine, producing everything from simple to complex with a huge volume, material and dimensional mix.   

What’s on the shop floor

Factory construction only started in September last year with rigging for the machines commencing in January 2023. Now, the new shopfloor has a state-of-the-art FASTEMS Agile Manufacturing System (AMS) running down the centre of the factory, capable of highly autonomous production in advanced milling and turning applications.

Material is purchased in pre-cut billets and manually loaded to pallets that have jig plates to accommodate different-sized billets. The pallet then enters the AMS where material is stored until it is called by Fastems’ Manufacturing Management Software (MMS) as part of a production order. The FASTEMS system will then determine which machine is available and then deliver the raw material pallet to it while set-up changes are completely automated. Discussing this, Ruud adds: “We have to have human interaction while creating the CAM file, loading/unloading the AMS and also pre-setting the cutting tools – but more than 90% of the process is automated.”

Once parts are programmed with CAM software, they are dropped into the FASTEMS MMS that will automatically generate a production plan based on order due dates, inventory balance or recurring batch runs to ensure the timely delivery of parts. The MMS forecasts the optimised production workflow, days in advance by preparing resources to minimise machine waiting times and WIP. The MMS also provides real-time production monitoring, tracking key performance indicators from OEE, machine tool utilisation and available resources.

Once the CAM programme is in the MMS and the billets are loaded, the parts are then scheduled for production. When called, a pallet capable of holding up to 1000kg will travel through the 512 pallet FASTEMS AMS to one of the machining cells. The AMS is configured with a two-machine milling cell on one side of the AMS and a two-machine turning cell on the other side.

The milling cell incorporates two 5-axis Mazak Variaxis C-600 machines that receive components from a robotised part-loading cell: the universal smart fixture devices are automatically prepared and delivered by another robot to the Variaxis machines to eliminate human interaction. The cell has a complete range of SCHUNK robot grippers that are automatically changed depending on the workpieces being scheduled and delivered to the machine.

You would typically think that this level of automation has everything covered, but it doesn’t end there. The system is capable of automated re-gripping for flipping the parts over from OP10 to OP20 – before re-entering the machining cell for complete 6-sided machining. Of course, RODIN doesn’t want to have an operator manually inspecting the parts, so intermediate probing and adjusting the finishing pass is typically part of the cycle. Once the part is completed, it is returned to its pallet. When the pallet is full, it is returned to the FASTEMS AMS where it will reside until its scheduled delivery date.

Like always, the cutting tools must be monitored and changed with optimal frequency. Here, RODIN opted for a fully integrated tooling solution where the Variaxis’ 30-position ATC acts as a short-term buffer and the robot proactively loads/unloads tools from an 800-position long-term storage unit that is part of the FASTEMS AMS. Once tools have reached their designated machining hours, they are automatically moved to a tooling station where they are manually removed, replaced, re-set and re-installed for the robot to collect new tools.

On the opposite side of the FASTEMS AMS is a two-machine turning cell with Integrex i-350H S turning centres supported by a FANUC robot. Configured slightly differently from the milling cell, the robot runs between the two machines loading/unloading components, cutting tools, interchangeable chuck jaws as well as its different gripper configurations to produce a wide array of parts. The cell will also automatically machine soft jaws to accommodate pending jobs.

Whilst the FASTEMS AMS at RODIN currently has a two-machine turning cell and a two-machine milling cell on each side of the AMS, the system has been configured for RODIN to add four additional machines on each side. With the next phase of ordering machine tools set to commence in 2024, RODIN will determine the type and size of Mazak machines to add to the FASTEMS AMS based on its clients and workload – all of which is being continually monitored by the ingenious FASTEMS MMS software the company utilises. Whilst the four entrepreneurs remain tight-lipped about the future of the business, not wanting to divulge more than the obvious plans for filling the Opmeer facility to its capacity of 12 machines that will run virtually unmanned 24/7 – it is evident that RODIN has sculpted a blueprint for automated success with FASTEMS that is completely scalable. In the next issue of MTD magazine, we speak with FASTEMS Sales Director for EMEA, Leigh Tricklebank to discover what the pain points are for subcontractors – and how to overcome them.

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