Much has changed in the short time since CNC West Magazine last visited SKM Industries in Valencia, CA. Adapting to the pandemic era has become their new normal, implementing a new standard work week, earning their AS certification, and adding more automation than you can shake a robotic stick at.
Change happened faster because of the pandemic, and like others in manufacturing SKM needed to rethink their standard operations when it hit full swing. As an essential business SKM kept running during the pandemic, but the early days posed safety challenges with no clear guidelines. Eventually SKM founder and president Sanjeev Kapoor managed to figure it all out, though not without making some compromises. “Customer’s orders dropped and slowed way down,” tells Sanjeev Kapoor. “I had to furlough a large part of my manufacturing team. As you know it is very difficult to find and train employees, so I originally wasn’t thrilled with the thought of losing so many. I began 2020 with 16 people running 17 machines. I was able to keep my core team of about 7 people that had been with me for a long time.” Fortunately, in September 2019 Sanjeev had started looking for automation solutions to streamline their production. He didn’t know at the time how useful that initial search would become for SKM. It literally changed the way he manufactures.
Sanjeev’s quest for automation led him to collaborative robots (cobots) – a game-changer for SKM. Unlike traditional robotics, these cobots work side by side with humans without safety barriers, making them a perfect fit for a dynamic job shop like SKM. “I had explored robotics before to automate the mundane button pushing tasks,” details Sanjeev. “They were always very expensive and needed a safety cage. For a job shop like this it didn’t make any sense. We change setups every few days and a big yellow arm just didn’t work for us. I found out that robots have come a long way since I had last done any research. They can work side by side with a person, if contact is made, they just stop without causing any harm to the human.” He placed an order for his first Universal Robot from Numatic Engineering, now known as Motion AI, in October. They cost 35-50k depending on options, but even at 50k it is still much cheaper than a large robotic system, and less than a year’s salary for an operator.
Sanjeev explored three or four robotic systems, but none could guarantee full integration with all his machine tools. Numatic Engineering was the only one who was confident it could be done. “I knew with my mechanical engineering and computer programming expertise along with my hobby of electronics we could get the robot to do everything I wanted,” details Sanjeev. “My goal was to be able to have the cobot work as an operator on any of the machines in my shop. I want it to run unattended, with the bare minimum of human interaction. The cobot can work through breaks, work through lunch, and even just one extra OT hour at night is a lot of added manufacturing time each week. At only 2 extra hours a day my ROI would be around 7 months. Maintenance is practically nothing, so it is essentially free labor after the initial investment.”
Advanced integration was very important to Sanjeev, and it took SKM and Numatic Engineering a few months to get everything dialed in the way he wanted. “Everything the robot does is tied into the machine,” explains Sanjeev. “It opens the door, picks up the part, loads the part, closes the door, and turns on the machine. When the cycle is complete the cobot opens the door, blows air to clean the part like an operator does, takes the part out, shakes it to remove any hanging chips and sets it down where I want it. One human can now monitor 3 or 4 machines and acts as QC for the robot operator. We can program in things like wait for inspection every ten parts. The robot runs ten parts and signals it is waiting. Human grabs the part and does the inspection. Soon I’ll be adding additional CMM capabilities to the shop floor to speed up the process even more.”
They program the cobots using their own control terminal right at the machine they are connected to. Programming is relatively easy and SKM’s team picked up the process very quickly. You can program the cobot to do practically anything you want for CNC machine tending. Indexing is no problem. Checking the part for correct alignment and location, no problem. SKM has figured out not only robot programming techniques but also changes in how the CNC is programmed and setup to make the process failsafe and efficient for lights out machine operation. Safety features like if the machine stops for any reason before reaching its scheduled cycle end, it immediately halts operations and triggers a visual and audible alarm to alert a human operator for assistance.
SKM employs the cobots on Haas mills and Mazak lathes. “They are easier to setup on the lathe, but neither is difficult once you get the hang of it,” tells Sanjeev. “One issue we had right from the get-go was presentation of material for the arm to pick up. What was the best way to setup raw material for the robot to engage with. We tried stacking parts on metal and wood trays, but nothing was as quick and as easy as plastic interlocking bricks like Legos.” Yes, those colorful Danish building blocks from your childhood were the perfect solution SKM was searching for. Only fitting considering Universal Robots is based out of Odense, Denmark. “These blocks form a perfect grid system,” continues Sanjeev. “You can quickly make any kind of setup you need. They are accurate enough for parts loading and unloading and not very expensive. You can easily move the base layer from machine to machine. People see what we are doing and laugh at first. Then they see the cobot in action and understand right away how they pair perfectly together. I was so pleased with the results of the first cobot that I began to buy more. Within a year and a half period I added four more units. Eventually, I will have one for each machine. We have better production and quality numbers now with six people and five robots making parts than we did with 17 people.”
SKM caught the attention of Universal Robots, who reached out to them after learning about their unique utilization of cobots. Sanjeev Kapoor shared, “It seems Universal Robots noticed our distinct approach, possibly through our collaboration with Numatic Engineering. Universal Robots was in the process of developing remote control software for their robots and sought partners to contribute to the project.” They wanted beta testers to give real world customer input. I of course said yes. We put cameras on the robot to monitor it remotely. We collaborated with them for about a year, and now they’ve brought the software to market. I didn’t know I needed or wanted the ability to control robots from home, but it’s been a very useful feature and an extremely successful tool.”
Emerging from the pandemic, many of SKM’s commercial clients experienced a noticeable slowdown in their operations. To adapt to this shifting landscape, they decided to expand their clientele within the aerospace industry, a move that ultimately led to them obtaining the prestigious AS9100 registration. “This strategic shift translated into significantly larger production volumes for aerospace components and fittings,” tells Sanjeev. “We are running more heat-treated steels and stainless steels than ever before. We needed to upgrade our tooling to go along with these specialty parts. Naturally, my first port of call was Jonathan Saada from Hi-Speed Corporation. He is our trusted industry expert and our go-to when it comes to sourcing YG1 tooling suitable for these extensive production runs. During our consultation, Jonathan introduced me to the innovative YG 2025 grade for turning, which made its debut in 2023 for machining stainless steels. Intrigued, we conducted comprehensive tests comparing this grade to other leading brands, and the results were remarkable. YG 2025 almost doubled our tool lifespan when applied to these components.”
Notably, YG1 representatives from South Korea, responsible for distribution in the USA, paid a visit to SKM Industries to witness firsthand their applications and testing of these cutting-edge tools. “Currently, we are in the midst of rigorous testing on Inox and I-ONE drills from YG1 for these specialized components,” continues Sanjeev. “Throughout this process, the unwavering support and expertise provided by Jonathan’s team have remained consistently outstanding.”
What’s even more exciting is SKM’s foray into CNC machine tending part presentation accessories. Starting in November 2023, they will offer gripper fingers and part presentation kits tailored for collaborative robots. These innovative products will be available for purchase through their website. To help others embark on their automation journey, SKM actively shares instructional videos on their YouTube channel, “CNC Cobot Solutions”.
And let’s not forget one of SKM’s unique features – the European-style workweek. Sanjeev Kapoor, always data-driven, introduced a four-day workweek with just 36 hours of work, yet employees are paid for 40 hours. The result? Increased productivity, reduced stress, and more time for employees to recharge.
In a world that constantly evolves, SKM Industries Inc. stands as a testament to adaptability, innovation, and the limitless potential of automation. With cobots working tirelessly and new part presentation accessories on the horizon, SKM’s CNC evolution is a story of success that’s still being written.