What do a rotary indexing assembly machine, a workstation, and the drum kit for the rock band Pink Floyd have in common?

All three have been built with modular aluminum extrusions. And though few assemblers care how Nick Mason hangs his high hat, they are interested in building flexible equipment that can be reconfigured to meet changing demands. Aluminum extrusions allow manufacturers to reconfigure their assembly lines quickly and easily.

More than just components for machine builders and systems integrators, aluminum extrusions are being used by assemblers to custom-build fixtures, workstations, material handling systems and machine guards.

Assemblers are using bolt-together framing components to tailor workstations and machines to specific processes or floor space requirements. Because profiles can serve as conduits for compressed air or electricity, assemblers can mount power tools or actuators anywhere on a workstation or machine frame. Similarly, assemblers can install tool holders, parts bins and information boards to minimize wasted motion and workflow interruptions.

Modular framing components also enable assemblers to add automation incrementally, such as conveyors, gravity-fed parts racks and other material handling equipment.

Machine guarding is another major application for modular aluminum components. Transparent panels can be bolted directly to a machine frame, or the machine can be surrounded by prefabricated screens hung from profiles mounted to secure base plates on the floor. Enclosures can be equipped with doors that swing open on hinges or slide open on linear bearings or casters.


Cost Concerns

Compared with steel tubes, extruded aluminum profiles can be more expensive. But, the higher material costs are more than offset by lower labor costs for assembling the project. Steel frames must be welded. Holes have to be drilled and tapped, and the frame has to be painted. An aluminum extrusion doesn’t have to be painted, and it’s modular. It’s got T-slots on all four sides, so engineers never have to drill and tap holes. Aluminum extrusions are also forgiving. Once you drill a hole in steel, it’s drilled.

Aluminum profiles can save money by giving engineers flexibility after the initial design of an automation project has been completed. With steel frames, engineers must be committed to their designs before they start cutting tubes, drilling holes and welding brackets. With aluminum framing, they don’t necessarily have to go into any kind of detail. If a control panel is needed somewhere, engineers just need to install a couple of crossbeams to mount it. They can worry about the exact location of the beams later. The T-slots allow engineers to attach components at any time and at any location.


Tips for Using Aluminum Extrusions

The following recommendations will help engineers to construct equipment with T-slotted aluminum extrusions:

  • Where possible, the vertical profiles should extend across the entire length of the project. This simplifies connection of the bottom elements and improves the overall appearance.
  • Structures should be designed to withstand the loads likely to be placed on them. Torsional stress at connection points should be avoided.
  • For all connections, preference should be given to positive locking over friction resistance in the direction of applied force.
  • Where possible, profiles should be installed at right angles to the anticipated load to achieve the maximum flexural strength.
  • Avoid breaks in the supporting profile when installing additional attachments. This will mean greater stability, fewer cuts, fewer connections and reduced assembly time.
  • Extend the profiles with the aid of the corresponding fastening elements. Where possible, support them at the joint.
  • If anodized surfaces are mounted in contact with each other, these surfaces should be lubricated to prevent noise generated by friction.
  • If profile-based structures are likely to be exposed to extreme stresses, such as impact loads, that might displace the points of attachment, a pin element should be installed to provide additional support.