ABB Robotics, in collaboration with the Italian Engineering consultancy EMC, has developed a robotic system for the production of ceramic mosaics that reduces costs by eliminating the need for paper and mesh backing as well as templates.
The global ceramic tile industry is worth around £20billion and is expected to grow to about £35billion in the next decade. Within this market, EU countries - notably Italy and Spain - are responsible for more than half of world revenues today but are projected to lose more than 10 per cent of that market share by 2015. The result is that European manufacturers cannot afford to be complacent and must compete more aggressively to retain their share of the global growth. Consequently there is a far greater imperative to streamline and automate manufacturing, overcoming previous traditionalist views.
Two years ago ABB Robotics approached EMC with a request to develop robotics applications in the ceramic tiles industry. EMC's name is an acronym for its focus: Engineering, Manufacturing and Consulting for robotic applications. Marco Corti, who started the Italian company in 2001, manages the technical aspects of the consultancy, while Paolo Durio heads the commercial side. Ceramics was an industry unknown to Corti, who had to come to terms with the fact that innovation was viewed with scepticism and suspicion. Even though robotics provide performance, flexibility and simplicity in production - all of which are required for the competitive future of the ceramic tile industry - there was still the need to come up with a system that was acceptable to the market.
Both Corti and Durio have had about 20 years of business experience, with Corti's devoted almost exclusively to robotics. He states: "You could say that ABB Robotics was responsible for growing the robotics market in Italy."
The project facing EMC and ABB Robotics was to help mosaic cutters, who produce the mosaics in squares or in strips held together by either expensive mesh or cheaper paper backing. EMC was asked if it could develop an alternative to this backing for mosaics.
Assembling the small squares of tile had traditionally been done by hand. EMC's brief was to remove this manual element while retaining both quality and accuracy. The company's design team developed a robotic system based on ABB's IRB340 FlexPicker robot, known affectionately by EMC's engineers as Moses.
ABB's FlexPicker delta robot is excellent for high-speed pick-and-place operations. It is claimed to be the fastest robot in the world, with 150 picks per minute and a payload up to 2kg, and, being top-mounted, the delta robots require minimal floor space.
The FlexPicker assembles and manipulates tiles and mosaics, prepares tiles for gluing, and applies a new type of adhesive to hold the tiles during subsequent phases of transportation and application.
Meanwhile, in the process of developing Moses, EMC realised the need for a new gluing method to maximise the flexibility of robotic handling. Corti says: "Working with partners, we devised a new system to glue the mosaic tiles together. We had to develop a new adhesive and deploy a second robot to apply it, which we called the sticking machine. The FlexPicker places the tiles onto a sticky sheet of plastic, which holds them stable. Then they pass under the sticking machine, where special glue is applied that holds the tiles together. The outcome was so outstanding that we could eliminate the use of paper backing, mesh and templates altogether."
So successful has the new system become in the Italian ceramics industry that the Moses has belied any concerns expressed about industry uptake. Durio comments: "This solution has become one of the most important parts of our business, and now represents one-third of our revenue."