By Reese Weber, Senior Application Engineer, 3M Industrial Adhesives and Tapes Division and Bridget Nyland, Global Marketing Manager, 3M Industrial Adhesives and Tapes Division
COVID-19, supply-chain issues, an ongoing labor shortage and greater sustainability requirements have accelerated the need to reassess all aspects of production, including fastening methods and automating production. Tapes and adhesives provide an excellent solution for three reasons: first, they offer similar and sometimes better performance than mechanical fasteners or welding; second, they can simplify training or onboarding due to ease of use, and thirdly, they can easily be automated to achieve scale or quality requirements.
Tackling these challenges all at once can feel overwhelming, but these distinct steps are a great starting point:
- Conduct a comparison between industrial tapes or adhesives versus mechanical attachment to identify benefits such as greater efficiency, higher speed of production, superior performance and greater consistency
- Evaluate how automation can realize benefits such as increasing throughput, maintaining consistency in quality outputs and reducing human error
- Determine the optimal level of automation that will deliver the benefits above, while being seamlessly integrated into your production process
Tapes and adhesives provide real-time and measurable advantages
Moving from mechanical attachment to adhesives may not be the first idea that comes to mind when thinking about labor shortages, but they can be an effective solution. First and foremost, adhesives and tapes don’t require a skilled or certified operator. Specialized labor skills can be extremely difficult to find, so using an applicable adhesive whenever possible can allow skilled labor to focus on the most critical joints.
Adhesives and tapes also offer several other advantages:
- Bonding and Sealing – Adhesives join materials and seal the joint at the same time, reducing the possibilities of leak paths
- Elimination of Galvanic Corrosion – Adhesives act as thermal and electrical breaks between dissimilar metals
- Reduction of Re-Work – Adhesives have an inherently smooth aesthetic, whereas unsightly welds need to be abraded/refinished
- Light-weighting – Adhesives allow the use of thinner gauge materials, which reduces end-product costs and weight
Whether and how much to automate
Once you’ve established whether you can use bonded joints, the next step is to investigate the use of automation for your bonding needs. The term automation can be a lot to unpack – it might bring to mind millions of dollars of investment and complex robotics, but there are automation options that require far less budget commitment and complexity.
In general, a manufacturer is ready for automation if they fall into one of the following buckets:
- Production can’t keep up with demand. Automation can help improve production rates and throughput, and reduce reliance on human labor.
- Manufacturers are looking for a more competitive product. Introducing automation can help improve product quality, consistency, precision, and traceability.
- Manufacturers need to reduce the cost per unit produced. This can be done by reducing waste, scrap, work-in-process inventory, or even the number of labor hours per unit.
Nearly every manufacturer has needs that fall into one of these categories, but jumping into three-dimensional flexible automation doesn’t make sense for every process. Fortunately, adhesive automation can be scaled from simple improvements using manual tools all the way up to six-axis multi-function robots.
Simple tools like tape blocks and hand-held adhesive dispensers are simple ways to improve the application process without moving into automation. They can aid in process repeatability when applying a tape or to dispense the proper ratio of a 2-part liquid adhesive every time.
Process assists are a great first step into automation. These are typically semi-automated tools that increase the productivity of manual application; one example is a linear laminator that unwinds and applies tape onto a straight substrate. Another example is an adhesive dispenser that doses a specified amount of adhesive and frees up both of the operator’s hands. These tasks allow more work to be done with the same amount of labor input.
Fixed automation tools are designed to perform one specific assembly process with the goal of improving accuracy, speed, or consistency, and/or reducing labor. For tapes, a continuous laminator with a conveyor belt allows one operator to handle the entire assembly step, or it could be a component placement system that allows for precise and accurate location of parts. For liquid adhesives, examples include a roll coater dispensing a specific coating thickness onto a large surface area or an X-Y Robot accurately dispensing in multiple axes.
Flexible automation is designed to perform more than one assembly process or to be re-purposed later, or as needed. Flexible automation typically incorporates robotics such as a six-axis robot outfitted with either a taping or dispensing head, depending on the adhesive type.
Determining the correct level of automation typically comes down to the return on investment versus short and longer term gains. Variables include assembly volume, value of parts, cost and availability of labor, quality requirements and of course, capital budget.
While automation can bring many advantages, it’s important to think about the entire process when making such an investment to understand the cost-benefit ratio. Beyond the immediate task to be automated, factors such as quality of raw materials, surface preparation, and even seemingly trivial variables such as the type of tape liner can all contribute to the success of automation implementation.
Maintaining a good relationship with the materials provider, equipment manufacturer and integrator is crucial to set up the machinery properly and keep downtime to a minimum. An in-depth holistic review of the existing production process is imperative to optimizing increased productivity, superior product quality and the other benefits that automation brings.
When looking to switch to tapes and adhesives, look for materials suppliers, equipment providers, and integrators who have experience thinking through the entire process and can help you along that journey. With the right partners, introducing tapes and adhesives can be a great step to address today’s manufacturing challenges and sustainability goals.
No matter manufacturers’ desired levels of automation, 3M has Bonding Process Centers (BPCs) designed to help identify customized process solutions to complex bonding challenges and enable customers to engage in virtual consultations and live demonstrations. The centers connect customers with 3M experts, facilitating a partnership that solves problems and optimizes processes.
Learn more about the 3M Bonding Process Center and schedule an appointment by visiting the webpage at 3M.com/bondingprocesscenter.
Reese Weber, Senior Application Engineer, 3M Industrial Adhesives and Tapes Division
Reese is a chemical engineer who has worked with many adhesives at 3M since 2012. He is currently a Senior Application Engineer for 3M™ VHB™ Tapes, working with customers on their design, technical testing, product selection and more.
Bridget Nyland, Global Marketing Manager, 3M Industrial Adhesives and Tapes Division
Bridget Nyland is a Global Marketing Manager for Connected Automation in 3M Industrial Adhesives and Tapes Division. Bridget has 10 years of industrial manufacturing experience ranging from project engineering to business development and strategy. She’s currently focused on helping 3M’s customers use digital & automated solutions to improve their bonding processes and realize the promise of industry 4.0.
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