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First of all, can you walk us through the automation process?

Sam: “The purpose of the new system is to glue the underlay onto the insulation boards (2400 x 1200 mm) and then to pack them for storage in the warehouse. This process used to be managed by several operators working on two completely independent machines. The machine for gluing the underlays came from another plant and we made various upgrades to it, particularly in terms of safety, so that we could keep using it here. Once the underlay had been glued to the boards, they were stacked into piles 500 mm high and taken by an operator to the existing packing machine where they were shrinkwrapped. The packs were then stacked manually and an operator secured a base block beneath the bottommost pack to make it easy for the forklift to pick up the stack. It was clear to us that this process could be made much more efficient, and since we’re seeing a steady increase in demand for the product, we asked Fraxinus to take a look at it.”

How does the system look now?

Sam: “The first thing that happens at the entry to the system is that a stack of unfinished insulation boards are presented to a manipulator. This manipulator has suction cups which it uses to pick up the boards one by one and forward them to the gluing machine. There, the underlay is glued onto the top of the board. The finished boards are then manually quality-controlled by an operator and stacked semi-automatically into piles 500 mm high on a lifting table. The next step is packing the stack in the shrinkwrapping machine. Once that’s been done, another robot stacks the packs on a pallet and labels them. This robot also secures a spacer beneath the bottommost pack, so that the forklift driver can easily pick up the stack of packs to take it into the warehouse.”

Stacking the packs at the end of the process could also be done by a manipulator. Why did you decide on a robot?

Stefan: “Firstly, a robot is safer and lower maintenance; secondly, it’s more flexible. We can use it to stack boards; we can also use it to affix foam blocks. A manipulator would have been cheaper for the stacking process, sure, but then we would have needed a more complex system for affixing the foam blocks. Another thing is that we could also easily repurpose the robot for another project. For example, imagine that at some point we decide to change the production process and dismantle our current system, we can still use the robot for a different task. In fact, that kind of thing has happened before at Unilin.”

Unilin was one of the very first Fraxinus customers and has been working with the company for almost twenty years now. Let’s get straight to the nittygritty: what makes the partnership so successful?

Stefan: “Because of the way that we collaborate very closely on each project and learn from each other, we see Fraxinus as a partner, not a supplier. Hans and his team know our products through and through, and although we’re often working on tight schedules, we always manage to have everything up and running on time and within budget. And that means that we can both keep doing what we’ve promised our customers.”

Hans: “Unilin is run by people with strong technical backgrounds, and that’s something that really makes a difference, right down to the smallest details. We challenge each other a lot on the technical ground, which requires a lot of energy from both sides. This synergy, this sharing of our combined knowhow, yields a result where we can always say on delivery that the design couldn’t have been improved on.”

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Unilin Insulation is a name that has been known throughout the construction sector for a good half-century, as one of the biggest European producers of PIR insulation boards and self-supporting roof elements. The company has 1,100 workers across its eight European sites and markets off-the-shelf solutions for all kinds of insulation purposes, be it new buildings or renovation projects. The Utherm Sarking L Plus insulation boards made by the system described in this article are insulation boards for the outer parts of pitched roofs and have an underlay glued on the top.

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Highlights of the installation

  • We can manually put small packs (600 x 1200 mm) onto the output for packing and stacking by the robot. In other words, the system can be used flexibly.
  • The foam blocks are no longer fixed with hot glue by an operator, which makes the new system safer. The operator tops up the glue from outside the safety zone, but the gluing itself is done by the robot in the safety zone.
  • With all the different tasks involved, we only had limited space for the new installation and made inventive use of space. The holder for the base blocks can be topped up while the robot is working.
  • The lifting table in the semi-automatic zone means that the operator no longer has to bend to stack the boards and can thus work more ergonomically.
  • Last but not least, the system can be started more quickly: only one or two workers need to be there to start work, while previously there needed to be at least six operators available.

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