Efficiency boost through automation

Origins of MicroStep in the fields of control and automation have been organically present in its activities and helped shape the product portfolio already since the early days, when the company was designing its first CNC system. The idea of minimizing and automating material manipulation via multifunctionality and integration of handling equipment into cutting machines was understood as a logical step towards cost reduction and saving of production time. In line with these requirements, MicroStep developed and implemented a number of automation solutions and machine-to-machine interfaces, integrating several cutting machines and automated material handling units into larger production systems, especially in large-scale production. The universal and modular nature of MicroStep's products lays groundwork for future industrial interoperability.

While facing ever-growing demands for greater efficiency, faster manufacturing, further cost reduction and resource conservation, the industry has recently witnessed a paradigm shift concerning future development of industrial engineering. Terms like digitalization, digital transformation, IIoT-powered automation and Industry 4.0 fueled discussion and activity in both academic and commercial spheres. Key improvements are expected to come as a result of smart project management, production automation, interoperability of production means, as well as implementation of predictive maintenance. MicroStep has been building its systems with these basic ideas in mind for at least a decade now.

Our philosophy is to deliver machines that are not isolated tools but form an innate part of production workflow by exchanging information, predicting potential breakdowns and automating the material flow throughout the customer's production. The key areas include automation of processes in line with the ideas of IIoT and Industry 4.0, improving consistency of cutting quality, reduce the impact of human errors and increase machine productivity.

Our customers who operate highly-advanced manufacturing facilities often look for complex automated cutting solutions where the input is the raw material plus task entries from their ERP systems and the output is processed and sorted high-quality parts, with an update on their status sent back to ERP; all of this regardless of the used cutting technology. Efficiency and reliability of the process are considered a matter of course.

- An Australian shipyard relies on MicroStep’s MSLoop solution for metal plate processing. MSLoop is an automated cutting table exchange system consisting of several cutting grates that significantly increases throughput of a CNC cutting machine as it allows simultaneous loading, cutting and unloading of material. The operating principle is three cutting grates exchanging in an endless loop: a grate is first loaded, then moves into the work area for processing and after that into the unloading area. When fully unloaded, the empty grate moves underneath the processing area back for loading, while the other grates also switch places. In this particular case, a pre-processing gantry has been added to the loading zone for marking and removing of surface primer in preparation for marking of synchronization lines.

To be able to realize diverse production projects efficiently, it is advisable for a manufacturer to have a set of versatile means of production that enable smooth transition between different projects. The trend shaping most industries nowadays is flexibility: a result of increasing demand for a wide range of more customized product variants. ”Lot size 1” – the possibility of customization up to a production output of a single product for a single customer based on their requirements – is the ultimate goal.

Additionally, a high degree of automation, a good selection of technologies and the capability to process various sizes of workpieces are required. In line with the abovementioned trends, MicroStep's cutting machines are designed to be actively integrated into centrally managed production systems. This is achieved by automating the material flow using in-house produced feeding and lifting equipment and conveyors, combined with software that enables the machines to communicate with different applications of a production management system, such as stock-, order- and part databases as well as with external ERP systems. The goal is for the machine to be able to quickly adapt to different cutting and processing requirements, increase work efficiency, optimize the production process and minimize costs and risks. The whole production should be fast, smooth and transparent, monitored from the corporate network.

With its strong research and development capabilities, MicroStep is able to meet even those customers’ requirements that were previously considered unfeasible by incumbent companies. The most innovative solutions to date result from close cooperation between customers who have visionary concepts of their production facilities and MicroStep that is ready to take up the challenges and turn their visions into reality.

❷ - BRÜGGEN Oberflächen- und Systemlieferant GmbH, a German supplier of containers and trailers, relies on a fully automatic shuttle table for loading and unloading its plasma cutting machine with a work area of 3,000 x 3,000 mm.
❸ - Ideally equipped for particularly large plates: two shuttle tables, each 12,000 mm long and 3,000 mm wide, do their job in Acciai di Qualità S.p.A. in Italy. Apart from other technologies, the 6 kW laser cutting machine is equipped with a bevel head for weld preparation up to 45°.

Let´s talk real projects: MicroStep offers modular solutions for part processing (cutting, drilling, marking) and material handling that can be tailored to actual spatial conditions on customer’s premises and integrated into their production workflow. Each cutting machine can be supplemented by various accessories and equipment for material loading, automatic unloading of large or smaller parts and precise part sorting. Available options include shuttle tables ❷ ❸, loop table systems, fork loaders, chain and belt conveyors, cutting tables with built-in rollers, and loading manipulators ❹ with vacuum or magnetic lifting.

❹ - MicroStep fiber laser machine MSF with MSLoad in use in a cutting center. The system with a 6,000 x 2,500 mm shuttle table and a laser bevel head is loaded and unloaded via MicroStep‘s material loader MSLoad.

MicroStep is distinguished by its ability to create smooth hardware and software interfaces

All of these solutions are developed and produced in-house in close cooperation between MicroStep’s engineers and those of the customer in order to achieve the best optimization of equipment functions, control software and production flow. Another highly appreciated option is the possibility to integrate MicroStep machines with third-party handling and storage solutions such as automatic cranes, sorting manipulators and storage towers. This is possible thanks to the very nature of MicroStep’s product philosophy – the design of machines, control systems and CAM software is all done in house, by our own specialist teams who design the systems with their modular nature, interoperability and integration requirements in mind.

An example of such a project is a combination of two cutting and marking machines with an automatic pallet exchange system and a set of storage towers ❻, which is successfully running at MicroStep’s Dutch customer Neptune Shipyards. The maritime service provider had a clear idea for their cutting operation: they envisioned a system that will significantly reduce manipulation time and allow for expansion with other cutting machines and storage towers in the future. The automatic material handling solution came from a third party while MicroStep was responsible for its hardware and software interfaces with cutting machines and for automation of the cutting and marking processes.

❺ - Hongxun Elevator Machinery in China invested in an automatic ProfileCut plasma cutting machine for beam processing up to 12,000 mm in length, including automatic material loading and unloading.
❻ - A production line that combines two cutting machines with an automated pallet exchange system and storage towers holding the plate stock: this configuration enables 24/7 operation at Neptune Shipyards in the Netherlands.

Modular solutions for future expansion

The operation principle is as follows: a selected cutting grate with pre loaded plates is automatically loaded into one of the two cutting machines and after the cutting and marking is done, it is automatically loaded back into its defined position in one of the storage towers. The prerequisite for such highly automated material handling is the ability of the machine to automatically measure the location and rotation of the plate on the cutting grate by a plate edge detection sensor.

Integration of a CAPP software is also recommended as it allows to automatically load cutting plans for the currently loaded material and also automatically initiate the cutting process, if required. MicroStep supplies its own production management software MPM (Machine Production Management). Thanks to the automation, technologies that do not require operator oversight (e.g. inkjet marking) can run completely without supervision – all the plates loaded in the storage towers can be marked automatically outside of the regular working hours (e.g. during the night). In case of a forced interruption of the process the machine will notify the operator by an e-mail or text message.

Complete automation from a single supplier

To achieve the best utilization and smooth long-term operation of equipment it is preferable to have a single supplier. Therefore, MicroStep offers the whole package, including the automatic loading and unloading system MSLoad and storage solution MSTower ⓬ for both laser and plasma. For both systems there are several options that allow a certain degree of customization. One good example is a fiber laser solution delivered to one of the leading suppliers of industrial boilers and heating systems.

For their Hungarian plant, MicroStep supplied an automated manufacturing cell: a fiber laser cutting machine MSF with a working area of 3,000 x 1,500 mm and equipped with a shuttle table, an automatic loading system MSLoad and an additional custom designed chain conveyor that brings a plate stack on a pallet from the warehouse to the loading position of MSLoad ⓭. The conveyor can carry three of these pallets at a time, each with a maximum weight of 3 tons. The pallets may contain plates of varying width. The width and order of the plates is entered into the system by the operator and since the machine is equipped with a width sensor it is able to confirm this information and automatically choose the correct cutting plan. After using up the entire plate stack on one pallet, the control system alerts the operator who gives the order to move another pallet into the loading position. Afterwards the machine continues to run in automatic mode. The operator can meanwhile add another pallet on the conveyor and load new plates.

⓬ - A great example of a laser system working largely autonomously in a multi-shift operation can be seen in the MicroStep Development Center in Bratislava, where a multifunctional laser cutting machine of the MSF series is integrated with a MSLoad handling system and MSTower storage system.
⓭ - A solution used by one of the leading suppliers of industrial heating and cooling systems: a combination of the fully automatic loading system MSLoad with an additional conveyor, working together with a MSF laser cutting machine.

Eight cutting machines, one crane, one loading wagon, two output conveyors – all fully automated

A premium example of a large-scale, fully automated manufacturing cell managed by MPM software is the plasma cutting and marking line delivered to the top Chinese mining equipment manufacturer ZMJ: eight CNC cutting machines, an automatic crane, a loading wagon and two output conveyors ❿, that work in a fully automatic mode and are capable of processing 500 tons of steel per day.

Material flow automation for structural steel applications is also in high demand. Apart from increased efficiency, systems for automatic loading and feeding of pipes, profiles and beams ensure high accuracy and reliability of the cutting results. While cutting of pipes and hollow sections ⓫ is considered a standard technology, automated cutting of beams poses a challenge in terms of accuracy as well as efficient fume extraction. MicroStep developed a solution involving 3D scanning of the true beam shape and a working area encapsulated in a protective cabin ❺ with central suction.

❿ - Eight cutting machines automatically loaded by a DEMAG industrial crane. Read more about this highly efficient solution for a Chinese company where MicroStep’s software plays a central role.
⓫ - Ikarus, the Hungarian manufacturer of buses and trolleybuses, opted for a combined fiber laser solution from MicroStep. Their MSF machine has both a shuttle table system for plate processing and an automatic feeder for cutting pipes and rectangular profiles.

A significant portion of structural steel applications is automated production of flanges, gussets and endplates on plate processing lines. For this purpose, MicroStep’s plate processor DS ❽ offers a unique combination of drilling, marking and high-precision bevel cutting. The newly redesigned DS machine provides plate loading by an automated manipulator and precise positioning on a roller track by three grippers with hydraulic jaws. The advantages are obvious: the drilling area is slat-free for the maximum safety of drilling operation, cut parts are unloaded automatically on an output conveyor that reduces unloading times significantly and the loading manipulator allows to place a stack of plates on the input which increases loading efficiency.

❼ - This MSF Max at the Italian steel processing center Acciai di Qualità S.p.A. has a retractable mobile cabin that allows to extend or shrink its work area to 6,000, 9,000 or 12,000 mm length so that it fits the actual need of the job shop in a most efficient way. It allows laser bevel cutting as well as parallel straight cutting with 2 heads. Overall effective size of the cutting table is 18,000 mm x 3,000 mm.
❽ - The Belgian leader in hydraulic tail lifts for trucks has invested in MicroStep‘s DS machine – a highly efficient, automated processing line that is capable of drilling holes, bevel cutting with plasma as well as plasma marking of plates up to a size of 6,000 mm x 2,000 mm. DS enables also automatic unloading of finished parts.

Integration of robotic manipulators with cutting systems significantly increases efficiency

The large-scale fiber laser machine MSF Max with a retractable mobile cabin ❼ is a highly flexible and complex cutting solution. Thanks to the telescopic form of the cabin, the customer is free to choose from three different work area sizes (6 m x 3 m, 9 m x 3 m or 12 m x 3 m) while cutting and loading or unloading operations run simultaneously. And even more intriguing: integration of robot manipulators into CNC cutting machines significantly boosts efficiency of material handling especially when there is need to process less regular 3D objects such as ceramic tanks ⓮.

⓮ - This MicroStep‘s waterjet cutting machine is loaded and unloaded by a robot. The Romanian company SC Mondial SA, a subsidiary of the traditional Villeroy & Boch AG, a world-renowned sanitary technology manufacturer, has a solution tailored to their needs by MicroStep.

Finally, there comes shipyard automation: requirements for delivery of large-scale parts for decks and bulkheads involves production of parts and structures 10+ meters large. Through a partnership with welding automation provider Pemamek Oy, MicroStep became a global supplier of large-span gantries for cutting and other technologies within Pemamek’s automatic panel production lines ❾.

❾ - Together with its Finnish partner Pemamek Oy, MicroStep supplies cutting technology for fully automated panel production lines used in shipbuilding.

The priority topic for MicroStep still persists: how to increase the efficiency of customer’s production? The answer lies in reduction of technological steps necessary for production of a single part, reduction of handling operations for a single part and in reduction of material handling times by automation of the material flow in the highest extent possible. The latest milestone on the journey towards this goal is our automated table exchange system called MSLoop ❶.

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