Most automated assembly systems are designed to make one specific product. When production of that assembly ends, the systems are scrapped or reconfigured at great expense. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. Several machine builders have taken advantage of advances in motors and distributed controls to create highly flexible automated assembly systems that don’t compromise on throughput.

The latest such system is the SmartPod from AGR Automation Ltd. (Arbroath, Scotland). The SmartPod is a fully enclosed automated assembly chassis. The standard chassis is 4.14 meters long, 2 meters high and 2 meters wide. Additional pallet-transfer modules can be added in 1-meter lengths, to a maximum length of 12 meters. Each 1-meter module has eight pallet positions-four on each side.

A system of interlinked synchronous linear motors drives the pallets, enabling them to move independently of each other. They can even travel backward to revisit an assembly station.

The standard pallet is 150 millimeters wide, but pallets can be linked together to accommodate larger assemblies, up to a maximum width of 500 millimeters. The system can position a pallet with a repeatability of ±0.05 millimeter.

Operators access the work area through gull-wing doors, and the chassis is rated for operation in a Class 10,000 clean room. It can be supplied fully tooled for a specific application, or assemblers can opt for an untooled system configured for various assembly, test and packaging applications.

The SmartPod can host a variety of equipment, including pneumatic or cam-driven pick-and-place devices; screwdrivers; Cartesian, SCARA and six-axis robots; laser welders; ultrasonic welders; vision systems; and adhesive dispensers. With the machine’s distributed control system, a robot or other device can be exchanged or moved to another part of the chassis with plug-and-play simplicity.

The SmartPod also can be integrated with outside equipment, such as belt conveyors or machine-tending robots. Depending on the application, the SmartPod can output 20 to 500 assemblies per minute.

From the machine’s touch-screen interface, assemblers can program the pallet-transfer system and assembly stations. User-friendly software enables engineers to reprogram the SmartPod for a new task within 15 minutes, even while the machine is operating. Engineers can also use the interface to access diagnostic information and production data.

The concept of an automation platform with individually controllable pallets isn’t new. The Supertrak pallet conveyor from ATS Automation Tooling Systems Inc. (Cambridge, ON) has been around since 2002. Like the SmartPod, the Supertrak moves pallets with linear motors. Engineers can control the direction, acceleration, speed and position of each pallet at any point in the system. This eliminates hard stops and pallet-to-pallet contact. By its nature, the system knows the location of each pallet in real time. Thus, there’s no need to track pallets with mechanical tags or a radio frequency identification system.

Another company with an innovative approach to reconfigurability is Demco Automation (Quakertown, PA). Demco’s technology starts with the Wedge, a pie-shaped tooling plate that includes a controller, wiring, valve manifold and input blocks. Preconfigured Wedges are available for many operations, including pick-and-place, dispensing and marking. An individual Wedge can operate alone as a tabletop station by hooking it up to power and air supplies. Alternatively, it can be plugged into a standard chassis, which comes complete with power, control and air hookups embedded into its top panel. Chassis are available in benchtop, rotary indexing and in-line models.

For more information on the SmartPod, call AGR at 44-0-1241-872-961 or visit www.agr-automation.com. For more information on the Supertrak, call ATS at 519-653-6500 or visit www.atsautomation.com. For more information on the Wedge system, call Demco at 888-41-WEDGE or visit www.demcoautomation.com.