Robotics Online - RIA - Robotic Industries Association
Editorials

Customization Speeds Time to Market/What Can Customization Do for You?

MICROMO

By modifying a standard component or building from scratch, the right vendor can simplify your R&D and production and put your product in the hands of customers faster.

As an OEM, your goal is to deliver a quality product to market as quickly as possible. You know what motion control can do to enable your application. What you may not know is that in many cases, the catalog is only the start. The right supplier can customize their offerings to suit your needs, as well as helping with troubleshooting and supporting your R&D with design insights fueled by their experience. By partnering with your vendor, you can improve your equipment and speed commercialization. Let's take a closer look at how.

In a perfect world, no matter what your application, you'd be able to find a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) component that would provide just the performance you need in the form factor you want. In reality, almost every design involves trade-offs and compromise. Sometimes, the process is painless, requiring that you give on low-priority parameters. Other times, the leap is simply too big. It might send you surfing from one website to another or calling around for catalogs, desperately searching for products when what you really need is customization.

Customization sounds time-consuming and expensive, but it doesn't have to be. In its simplest form, customization involves a vendor modifying their COTS products to save you time, cost, and headaches. Perhaps the most basic example would be adding cables to a motor. Many motors come with bare terminals that the user needs to connectorize themselves. It's a simple task, but not nearly as forgiving as you might want for production step. Bend the terminal once, it's not a problem. Bend the terminal twice and it often breaks. Ideally, the motor would be sent back for repair, but if the break takes place on a busy production floor during a time crunch, the motor may simply be discarded. Sometimes, the act of soldering itself applies so much heat to the terminal that it burns up the brushes, turning a valuable component into a paperweight. In either case, you wind up losing money twice: once on scrap and once on lost production time.

Asking your supplier to apply the cabling for you is an easy solution. They remove the terminals, make the connections, maybe even add a strain-relief element. The key is that they put in the production time, not you. Even better, they take the risk while you receive 100% usable product.

Sometimes, a minor modification is all that's necessary to allow the use of pre-existing inventory with components from a new supplier. When the Machine Lab Inc. (Fort Collins, CO), which manufactures bomb-disposal robots, started buying components from MICROMO (Clearwater, FL), they wanted to be able to use a supply of customized mounting hardware they'd built for the inventory from the previous vendor. The problem was that the MICROMO motor was 30 mm in diameter, while the clamps were sized for a product 2 mm wider. MICROMO's dedicated machine shop expanded the size of the unit by adding a sleeve, epoxying it into place, and anodizing the whole package. The gearmotors arrived at the Machine Lab ready to fit into the mounts, saving the OEM time and money.

For skilled machinists with the right tools, it's quick and easy to modify motors and assemblies, adding mounting plates and brackets, pulleys and gears, even lead screws. They can drill cross holes into output shafts. If a planetary gear box suffers from pin walk, they can weld the pins to the carrier. With simple changes, they can dramatically increase the usability of the product.

Surveillance-robot specialist ReconRobotics (Edina, MN) prefers to outsource whenever possible, saving its inhouse engineering efforts for value-added aspects like controls. To assist, MICROMO delivers an integrated package of motor, gearhead, and leads. In addition, their machine shop adds a pinion designed by ReconRobotics. “What we’re buying from MICROMO is a solution that allows us to drop it into our robot, plug it into the boards and be up and running very quickly,” says COO Patrick McKinney. “MICROMO has done an excellent job for us over the years. They bend over backward to help us out.”

Sometimes, a job requires more than just a few quick welds. One robot manufacturer bought a MICROMO motor and planetary gearhead for their prototype. When they went to install it, however, they discovered that while the assembly gave them the performance they wanted, it was too long to fit the allotted space. The size mismatch didn't remain a problem for long. The MICROMO engineering team designed a 1:1 spur gearbox that takes the output of the motor and transfers it to the input of the planetary gearbox, cutting the length of the package in half. The process sounds complex but these types of modifications can take place surprisingly quickly from concept to delivery, the whole project took about three weeks. With customization capabilities, you're no longer tied to choosing certain subsets of mechanically compatible components. Suddenly, the sky is the limit.

Knowledge, Not Just Components

As an OEM, you have a core expertise that you leverage in the products that you build. Perhaps your specialty is medical design or security and defense or photonics. As good as your design team is, they may not be specialists in motion control. Then again, they shouldn't have to be. With the right partner, you can leverage decades of engineering experience to get out-of-the-box motion solutions that can help you efficiently prototype and qualify your devices so that you can move them to the next phase.

A good example is a customer who recently called the MICROMO sales department for an encoder. They initially elected not to buy, deciding that the existing solution didn't work for their needs and budget. Then a MICROMO applications engineer called them back to discuss their project in more detail. When he looked at the exploded view of the encoder assembly in the context of the application, he realized that the parts lent themselves to being housed and shafted in a freestanding encoder. The customer jumped on the idea and development began. The process is underway today and will eventually involve a gearmotor, as well, for a fully-integrated subassembly.

The example underscores one of the critical aspects of customization communicating with your vendor. When the customer first called, they had no thought of taking this approach. The applications engineer leveraged his experience and knowledge of both motion technology and the capabilities of MICROMO. In the process of developing the solution, we rebuilt one of our standard encoders into something entirely new that better served the application. In less than three weeks, the project went from drawings to shipping parts to the customer.

Don't just talk to order takers on the phone, get in touch with the engineers. They’ve spent years thinking about the best way to get something from point A to point B, and do it accurately, repeatably, and economically. Collaborate with them. Let them bring their expertise to bear on your problem. Drawing on their knowledge base, they may come up with something that you wouldn't dream of, but that will provide the ideal solution. With little or no work on your part, you can wind up with not just a part but a subassembly that can allow you to validate your prototype more quickly and get your product in the hands of customers.

Testing, 1, 2, 3

The right vendor partner doesn't just offer modifications, they offer diagnostic capabilities that can help you troubleshoot your design, manufacturing, and product-acceptance processes (see frontis). MICROMO, for example, has a sophisticated in-house test lab that can do everything from determine brush wear for a motor under a specific load to analyze the after effects of extreme low-temperature operation on a motor assembly (see figure 3). A quality test facility can not only help diagnose problems, it can provide your R&D team with a clear understanding of how specific conditions will affect components prior to field trials, allowing you to navigate the process more efficiently.

One customer doing product qualification put six motors through varying durations of accelerated lifetime testing, stopping one after 1000 hours, one after 2000, and so on. The MICROMO test lab evaluated each in detail, delivering data on wear to the bearings and brushes, lubricant breakdown, and more. The document provided not just a detailed breakdown, but historical information to help the customer’s R&D team determine how long the product should last in the field.

When it came to Stratasys Inc. (Eden Prairie, MN), test lab capabilities helped them uncover an unexpected trouble spot. Stratasys builds rapid prototyping machines that extrude plastic to form parts in a process that can sometimes last a week straight. Annual utilization rates run as high as 90%, making reliability paramount.

When failures started cropping up with a new model machine, Stratasys turned to MICROMO’s test lab for help. Initial testing showed that the problem wasn't the motor but early wear of the gearhead, which then overstressed the motor to trigger failure. Further analysis, however, revealed that the real problem was lubricant breakdown in the gearhead. Synthetic lubricant, installed at the factory, seemed to be the answer. “The Klubersynth made our gearboxes last about five times longer,” says Paul Leavitt, systems engineer at Stratasys. “The downside was that it took three times the current to drive that grease. The earlier motor just couldn’t do the job any more.” They needed a more powerful motor that could accommodate the intensive duty cycle presented by the application. With the change, failures dropped from 15 to 30 per month to just three over the course of nine months, but lifetime testing on the motors suggested that even that rate was far too high.

When Stratasys investigated, they discovered that the failure didn't lie with the motors, at all. The encoders were getting knocked loose in the course of normal shop operations because the new motor was 18 mm longer than its predecessor. MICROMO’s machine shop swung into action, shortening the flange, the motor shaft, the pinion, and the screws to reduce the length of the overall assembly. They also put a protective aluminum cap over the encoder to transfer any impact to the motor housing. As a result of the changes, Stratasys prototyping machines can run at astoundingly high duty cycles without fear of downtime. “To date, the motors have performed very well with few field issues,” says Leavitt. “I don't know how long they're going to last, maybe 10 or 15 years.”

With the support of a vendor who provides value-added capabilities like customization, design collaboration, and testing, you can enhance development, streamline manufacturing, and speed commercialization. At MICROMO, we have 50 years of supplying the industry. Our team of test engineers, skilled machinists, and application engineers puts decades of collective experience at your disposal. We can not only ship parts within days, but work with you to solve your thorniest motion problems. We can help your R&D team understand exactly what tests are necessary to properly evaluate their main performance concerns and then perform them. Your vendor shouldn't just be someone who charges you money and dumps packages at your door, they should be a partner who helps you find the right solution for your problem even if it has to be developed from scratch. Expect more. Expect MICROMO.

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