Industrial robotics help automate toner cartridge manufacturing process

Industrial robots helped Ricoh automate their manufacturing process and improve their operational efficiency.

By TM Robotics January 4, 2021

In an industrial context, the word automation is often, inaccurately, used to mean only industrial robotics. In fact, it refers to everything from inverter driven conveyor systems to advanced manufacturing software. Here, in its truest sense, it means automatically controlling a process without human intervention. One example is Ricoh’s investment in industrial robotics at its manufacturing arm, Ricoh UK Products Ltd in Telford, UK., which improved profitability and increased efficiency. Robotics companies Evershed and TM Robotics assisted in the process.

The company’s holistic approach to automation and efficiency was demonstrated when it began building a new production line for color toner cartridges to be used on one of its office machines. Ricoh began by investigating a way of using industrial robotics to make manufacturing the toner cartridge shutters a simple process. They used a combination of SCARA robots and a machine Cartesian robot to work with their six bowl feeders and a rotary index table.

According to Matt Talbot, one of the company’s design engineers, the objective of the automated element of the line is to assemble a shutter to open and close the cap on the cartridge. The shutter itself contains five parts which have to be assembled.

To meet the production demands Ricoh has to assemble the shutter in 7.5 seconds. The company uses a rotary table, surrounded with various pieces of automated equipment, to assemble the device. After the parts are removed from it, they are stacked in trays, before being moved on into the next element of the assembly line. Control is managed by a programmable logic controller (PLC), which communicates with the SCARAs.

“Some of the seals can be easily dislodged so we needed quite a precise system,” Talbot said. “The SCARA robot uses sensitive parallel grippers to pick a raw body from a bowl feeder and place it on the table. Then, from the next unit clockwise around the table it picks up a completed assembly. This assembly is then rotated through ninety degrees so it’s in the correct position to be packed and secured.”

The packing trays are located on a Cartesian robot arm, held there using a vacuum attachment, and the 72 units are arrayed in rows of eight by nine. This robot arm presents the tray to a common position and it stays there until it’s loaded. The tray is then replaced back into the magazine from which it came. The Cartesian then selects the next tray down, moving down its vertical axis.

The magazines are manually replenished and the full trays are taken out and stored or moved onto the next step of the process. To ensure personnel safety, there are a series of light guards to stop the operator opening the door. If the door is opened, the robot is prevented from entering the area by the light guards.

Because the throughput of the system is so high, reliability is crucial. There is a constant demand for cartridges and a failure in production could lead to problems in the supply chain. To avoid such problems, Ricoh UK Products keeps a stock of finished components in case of system break down.

The installation of the system was straightforward, with mechanical installation taking just half a day. According to Talbot, wiring and testing took almost a week and further developments in reducing cycle time and improving system efficiency accounted for a couple of additional days. The system has already more than paid back its installation time in improved efficiency.

“Without automation, the cost of doing this job manually would be very high, and the quality of the assembled parts could not be guaranteed,” Talbot said. “Also, because it’s so intensively repetitive, this kind of job is made for automation. However, while it was cost that originally prompted us to invest in robotics, we have since become keen advocates of their simplicity, reliability and profitability. So much so that we’ve expanded other areas of the line and added three other SCARA robots at the heart of separate systems.”

The definition of automation applied at Ricoh UK Products is a progessive one. However, this isn’t only the result of the manufacturing company reflecting the automated ethos of the overarching Ricoh business. “I believe that Ricoh have been so successful with their industrial robot installations because the company immediately grasped that it’s about making manufacturing easier not more complex,” said Nigel Smith, managing director of TM Robotics. “Once this mental shift has been made, any manufacturer could reap benefits similar to those seen at Ricoh. It’s just a case of taking the first step into industrial robotics.”