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ICC's robotics revolotionize coremaking. (Cover Story).

In an effort to increase productivity and efficiency to remain globally competitive, Indianapolis Casting Corp. developed and installed a one-of-a-kind robotic production cell to manufacture Cylinder block core packages.


This is the best way to describe the new $6.5 million robotic core production, assembly and coating operation that ramped up to full-scale production this month at Indianapolis Casting Corp. (ICC), Indianapolis. Designed to produce the 12-piece complex core package for a new engine program's V8 cylinder block, this 11robot system is the first of its kind in the North American foundry industry.

ICC believes this type of production system is necessary today and in the future to sustain its leadership position in the diesel engine cylinder block and head market.

"We are in a global price war for diesel engine blocks and heads," said Edward Reelfs, ICC plant manager. "To stay competitive, you have to push the boundaries of what has been achieved. Manufacturing automation like robotics is what will allow us to continue to compete effectively."

A Global Fight

Even though ICC is a wholly owned subsidiary of International Truck & Engine Corp. (formerly Navistar International Transportation Corp.), the foundry must compete globally for external OEM as well as internal business. The margins for its cast components are shrinking as foreign competition continues to increase. Traditional casting manufacturing methods for cylinder block and head components rarely provide the efficiency necessary for domestic foundries to win jobs when the global competition is paying labor rates 25-50% of current vs. average.

"As a diesel engine block and head foundry, we are one of the limited suppliers for a limited market an the competition is worldwide," said Reelfs. "Everyone is fighting for the remaining diesel market as engines continue to convert to gasoline and cylinder heads to aluminum. Soon we are going to reach a stage when there are only going to be a couple global suppliers left producing blocks and head in gray iron or a future material such as compacted graphite iron. Our goal is to be one of those suppliers."

According to Stratecasts, Inc., Ft Myers, Florida, gray iron casting prices for the diesel truck market are expected to increase at a rate of 1.8% through 2011. This growth is less than the rate of inflation, forcing foundry supplier to recoup the difference in price cuts.

The fight for survival during this price war is nothing new to ICC. It has been automating its core and mold production lines for the last 20 years to reduce costs. In fact, throughout the '90s, ICC often was pointed to s a leader in the foundry industry in the use of automation technology to increase efficiency in the production of its blocks and heads.

But this leadership was as much due to cost reduction measures a it was to meeting the ergonomic demands being placed on manufacturing firms by OSHA. In addition, employment levels at ICC dropped by 50% from 1990 to 2000 due to retirement and attrition. Automation was necessary just to maintain its production levels.

At its core assembly lines, the foundry had added conveyors and custom-built, hard tool solutions such as pick-and-place systems and gantries to aid in the production, assembly and refractory coating of core packages. Lift-assist systems and gantries were placed at core package transfer points and the molding lines to aid in production.

But these were custom-built systems with specific purposes. Modification of these systems to fit new products was difficult, often requiring extensive shutdowns to rework the technology. In addition, these automation systems only could increase production so far because they still required extensive manual labor participation along the whole process.

"We had done a lot of automation throughout the coreroom, but it had always been a case of applying custom-designed, hard-tooled 'homemade' robots to existing manual operations," said Bill Shapiro, project manager for the robotic cell. "These didn't provide us any flexibility because with every new job we had to build a new system."

Typically, ICC's two molding lines required up to 15 employees at each line (three shifts a day) for block and head core production, assembly and coating. When using manual labor, consistency is a big issue with scrap and rework costs.

For ICC's future, these difficulties had to be overcome.

"We needed to make an investment in the future that would readily adapt to a new style and product but would not have to reinvent the wheel," said Reelfs.

When ICC first began the bidding process for the V8 block for the new engine program three years ago, the foundry initially was leaning toward a solution similar to its current robotic automation. However, after further research and a trip to Germany for the foundry exhibition at GIFA '99, ICC determined that the world of robotics had progressed in terms of programming and repeatability to the point that the foundry could take the 'giant leap' into an entirely automated production cell.

"This was our chance to put together a truly state-of-the-art system," said Shapiro. "The most important focus was to make the best core that can be made. This translates into less scrap, better quality, less rework other words, more profit."

Breaking New Ground--Flexible Automation

ICC began installing the robotic cell in January 2001. From the outset, the goal was to have the system at full production within one year.

"It was an aggressive ramp-up considering there wasn't a model for us to follow," said Greg Watkins, senior engineer for ICC. "But the engine program was coming on line and if we wanted the business, we needed to meet the ramp dates."

The system primarily is composed of three automatic coldbox core machines, nine pedestal robots, two linear gantry robots and one conveyor over 2000-sq-ft of manufacturing space (visit to view an equipment list and suppliers for the robotic coremaking cell). Human involvement in the robotic cell is limited to inspection and overseeing production. ICC built this cell in space previously used for storage on the manufacturing floor and is feeding the core packages to a drying oven also being used by one of the foundry's "old core production lines" that uses custom-built automation.

The line began producing the 260-lb core packages in July. Now at full production, the robots produce a V8 core package every 45 sec for more than 1500 packages/day. In addition to the VS block, the robotic cell was designed to handle V6 and V4 blocks through quick tool changes of less than 10 min.

Core Assembly in Action

Core package assembly begins with the unloading of the crankcase core from the first core machine by a robot. This core is defined by passing through a series of brushes and profile plates. It then is presented to a smaller robot that places the gate core into it. The gate core is produced by the second core machine, which delivers it to a hand-off stand and then to a buffer before being inserted into the crankcase core.

The crankcase core then is presented to a screwdriver that inserts two screws to hold in the gate core, It then is placed on a hand-off stand to allow the robot to ready itself for the next crankcase. A gantry robot transfers the crankcase assembly to the next stand.

In addition to the gate core, the second core machine produces water jacket, barrel slab and the front valley cores. These cores are unloaded in one pickup by a large frame gripper. The front valley core is set to a fixture pallet on a conveyor for transfer to its assembly point. The water jacket cores are placed on a defin/assembly fixture for definning. The barrel slab cores are assembled onto the jacket and also definned. The robot then places the gate core on the handoff stand and returns to unload the next set of cores.

The water jacket/barrel slab assemblies are picked up and positioned to drive a screw in both ends of both assemblies. These assemblies are placed onto the crankcase core and a transfer gantry places the crankcase into a fixture on the assembly turntable.

The end, sidebank and rear valley cores are unloaded from the third core machine and are placed onto individual regrip stands. Two robots each pick up an end, sidebank and valley core and assemble them onto the crankcase. The turntable rotates to allow the operator to fasten the package together with a tie rod and perform visual inspection while another assembly is being put together on the other side, When the operator is finished, he steps off a safety mat and presses a button n for the turntable to index.

At this point, the unload gantry picks up the core package and transfers it to a conveyor for the dipping system The core package travels on the conveyor for 100 ft until a robot removes the valley cores from the package, dips them in a refractory and places them on the conveyor for the drying oven. A gantry then picks up the core package, seals the surfaces that won't be refractory coated, and dips, drains and places the package on the conveyor for the drying oven.

The robotic core cell requires two operators--one for the core machines and one for the core package assembly turntable. Two inspection stations were built in at each core machine to allow the cores to be called out by the operator or fed back into the cell as necessary.

Designed for Flexibility

Although this robotic cell was designed to produce core packages for the new blocks, ICC maintained flexibility in the system to be able to produce V6 and V4 blocks for future engine programs.

"A critical criteria in our design of the robotic cell was the recognition that while our immediate needs were for today, we were laying the groundwork for our processes for the future," said Shapiro. "In today's market, the competition is relentless. Dynamic production capabilities, speed to market and competitive pricing are essential to survival. The robots' ability for quick reconfiguration and overall flexibility is the cornerstone of the system."

In support of this goal, quick tool changers are mounted to the wrists of the robots so that multiple sets of grippers are available for different applications. This allows ICC to change tooling quickly and begin production of another product with a simple swap of the robotic cell's programming. In addition, work rest pedestals within the cell are designed so that the bases are fixed to the floor but the parts that touch details on the cores are mounted on plates for quick and accurate changeovers.

In terms of programming for the robots, the system is connected by an overall cell program logic controller (PLC) using different types of field bus technologies. The robots have a connection to the end of the arm to connect to the gripper. They also have a slave card in the controller that connects them to the PLC master controller for the cell (which is connected to the factory floor network). The interface of the sand transporters to the core machines and the core machines to the robot cell is accomplished across this network, as well as the ability to connect to laptops for troubleshooting anywhere within the plant.

Beyond the hardware and software of the robot system, ICC has received a benefit in training with the robotics when compared to the custom-built, hard tooling automation.

"Instead of a person having to learn the theory of each custom solution, a worker becomes familiar with the operation and maintenance of the robot, which can be transferred to other operations throughout the foundry," said Shapiro. "This flexibility allows robots from retired processes to be reconfigured and redeployed."

Future Automation

The apparent success of this automation strategy has prompted the foundry to begin developing a similar cell for core assembly for gray iron cylinder heads.

In addition, the firm is in the midst of developing a new molding production technology to supplant its current cope and drag green sand line for cylinder heads. However, according to Reelfs, "The foundry industry is going to have to wait a little while before we unveil those."

For a free copy of this article circle No. 345 on the Reader Action Card.

RELATED ARTICLE: Indianapolis Casting Corp. Indianapolis A wholly owned subsidiary of International Truck & Engine Corp.

Metals Cast: Class 33, 35 and 45 gray iron,

Mold Capabilities: Green sand.

Core Capabilities: Coldbox.

Melt Capabilities: High frequency coreless induction.

Size: 500,000 sq ft.

Markets served: Cylinder blocks and heads for the diesel truck engine market.

Employees: 517.

Year Founded: 1938 as International Harvester; became Indianapolis Casting Corp. in 1991.
COPYRIGHT 2002 American Foundry Society, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Comment:ICC's robotics revolotionize coremaking. (Cover Story).(Brief Article)
Author:Spada, Alfred T.
Publication:Modern Casting
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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