Going all in on robotics

Matt Palfreman ...

... has pioneered vision-enabled robotics by prototyping new designs using 3D printing technology.


The cooling process in long rolling naturally produces wire rod coils with head and tail-end metallurgical inconsistencies. Trimming those ends has proven to be a production challenge, however, and Head of Technology Matt Palfreman and his R&D team in Worcester, Massachusetts, U.S.A., wanted to find a better approach. High-speed shear accuracy was difficult to maintain at speeds of 120 meters per second. Manually counting rings to clip off and remove was tedious and dangerous. So the team considered adapting existing technology with a novel application—vision-enabled robots programmed to trim coils exactly where needed.

"We wanted a completely different alternative to competitor products," says Palfreman. "Robotics seemed the right solution." The team soon discovered it "started with the most difficult of possible applications," he says, "but we went all in." Testing numerous iterations of rapid prototypes created with 3D printers involved "a massive effort and long hours" before the team was ready to share its results with the first customer. The new robot has proven to be simpler, safer, easier, and faster than existing approaches. Workers previously tasked with a repetitive, potentially hazardous operation can now be retrained with new skills in robot system maintenance. Steel producers benefit from the greater consistency of coil and higher overall metallic yield. And soon the vision-assisted capabilities of robots will improve other stages of the long rolling process.