RISE OF THE HOME-GROWN FAC­TORY BOTS

Sa-de­signed in­dus­trial au­toma­tion is set to make an in­ter­na­tional im­pact, says Roger Houghton

Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - How Your World Works -

THERE’S NO REA­SON THAT only the big in­ter­na­tional play­ers should have the ben­e­fit of in­dus­trial ro­bots, two in­ven­tive South Africans rea­soned – so they built their own and are get­ting set to mar­ket it on the global stage.

Gaut­eng's Möller brothers, Ivan and An­ton, have de­vel­oped an un­com­pli­cated, in­ex­pen­sive ro­bot us­ing CNC three-axis tech­nol­ogy. The pro­to­type is al­ready fully op­er­a­tional mak­ing metal tops for floor clean­ing mops at a fac­tory in Ba­belegi, north of Pre­to­ria. Tar­get price for the ba­sic ro­bot is in the re­gion of R300 000 and the de­sign­ers are con­fi­dent it can pay for it­self in about two years lo­cally when used for labour-in­ten­sive, repet­i­tive work. There are plans for a rental op­tion, too. Four im­proved mod­els with two four-axis arms, are al­ready be­ing man­u­fac­tured.

The pro­ject grew from an idea in Ivan's head to an op­er­at­ing pro­to­type in only six months. What kick-started the process was a visit to the Shang­hai In­dus­trial Au­toma­tion Show in China. The high cost and com­plex­ity of spe­cialised ro­bot­ics on dis­play high­lighted the op­por­tu­nity to make an af­ford­able, ver­sa­tile small ma­chine – and that is what they have done. They learnt while in China that the global growth in in­dus­trial au­toma­tion over the next five years was ex­pected to be in the re­gion of 2 000 per cent. Much of the equip­ment is ex­pected to be pur­chased by small man­u­fac­tur­ing op­er­a­tions in China as wages there in­crease rapidly.

If the Möller name seems strangely fa­mil­iar, reg­u­lar read­ers will re­call that An­ton was fea­tured in the Oc­to­ber is­sue of Pop­u­lar Me­chan­ics as a maker of me­dieval ar­mour. He de­vel­ops the com­puter soft­ware used for the ro­bot; Ivan is re­spon­si­ble for over­all con­cep­tu­al­i­sa­tion, de­sign and pro­duc­tion en­gi­neer­ing. What's re­mark­able is that nei­ther brother has any for­mal ter­tiary qual­i­fi­ca­tion. Ivan spent four years studying at the Vaal Tech and Wits, but even­tu­ally gave up on this route. At 19 he bought a lathe and started work­ing for him­self as a turner in a garage on a plot near Benoni. Mak­ing an au­to­mated tool changer for the lathe started him on the road to in­dus­trial au­toma­tion. Sub­se­quently, a Cen­tu­rion CNC club run by Pro­fes­sor Rudy du Preez has proved to be a sig­nif­i­cant in­spi­ra­tion.

Ivan's big break came five years ago when he joined An­drea Meneghelli, the son of the founder of Acad­emy Brush­ware, Vit­torino, who came from a brush-mak­ing

fam­ily back­ground in Italy. What had started as a two-man busi­ness in a back­yard mak­ing paint brushes is now a Bid­vest com­pany housed in a large fac­tory build­ing.

Ivan was tasked with main­tain­ing the ex­ist­ing equip­ment as well as de­sign­ing and man­u­fac­tur­ing new ma­chines. His first ma­jor pro­ject was to make an au­to­mated ma­chine to bend the wire frame and thread the end for paint rollers. He built two ma­chines that are still op­er­at­ing, hav­ing each made more than a mil­lion han­dles. A fur­ther two im­proved ma­chines are be­ing built.

The me­chan­i­cal four-axis ro­bots in devel­op­ment have arms that use step mo­tors con­trolled by a com­puter and Mesa card com­bi­na­tion. The task-spe­cific tool­ing that will typ­i­cally be bolted to the ro­bot will be con­trolled by a pro­gram­mable logic con­troller (PLC), which will com­mu­ni­cate with the ro­bot con­trol com­put­ers to co-or­di­nate the phys­i­cal process.

“We use straight­for­ward G-code pro­gramme lan­guage, which is used in­ter­na­tion­ally for CNC ma­chines and we re­ceive ex­cel­lent sup­port from the Linux CNC In­ter­net fo­rum,” An­ton says. “The sys­tem is plug-and-play, so if there is a prob­lem we will swap the com­plete unit. By plug­ging a mo­dem into a USB port we can use a Team Viewer to pro­gramme the unit re­motely from South Africa.”

Chi­nese in­vestors are due here in early 2016 to see for them­selves. The like­li­hood is that cer­tain com­po­nents and assem­bly will take place in China; the con­trol pan­els will be Sa-built us­ing tech­nol­ogy and sys­tems sourced from the United States.

Above: Ivan Möller con­trols the ro­bot us­ing a Hu­man Ma­chine In­ter­face (HMI) un­der the watch­ful gaze of his brother, An­ton. Right: The brothers are un­der­stand­ably proud of their first pro­duc­tion ro­bot­ics ma­chine.

Above: The pro­to­type is now do­ing duty mak­ing caps for mops. Left: Ivan still does turn­ing work on the Graziano lathe he bought 22 years ago. Bot­tom: A 3D printer is used to make a num­ber of smaller parts.

Top: The fin­ished prod­uct, a ba­sic ro­bot­ics unit ready for the cus­tom tool­ing. Mid­dle and bot­tom: The ba­sic unit with spe­cific task tool­ing (yel­low com­po­nents) for as­sem­bling paint rollers.

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