Robotic Sanding Cell Case Study

Customer, Challenge & Risks

Our customer was the engineering director of a plastic molding and surface finishing supplier that focused on exterior trim moldings for the automotive industry, along with serving the marine and heavy truck industries. Their team had the initiative to automate the sanding process of an injection molded part, which removes any flash before paint. Our customer was vertically integrated, streamlining the entire process of the part.

The existing sanding process was labor-intensive but also repeatable, a perfect candidate for automation. The application did not only pose ergonomic concerns from handling a bulky orbital sander but also those of potential exposure to abrasive dust particles. Our customer’s main concern was the safety of their personnel while also combatting the current labor shortages. One struggle we faced initially was the need to change sanding pads while finishing a single part.


Based on the recommendation of a Pioneer team member, we contacted the customer to see if we could help with their automation needs. The customer was seeking solutions for their existing sanding process but had not yet determined a solution. We aided the customer in designing a system that accommodated their concerns with the adaptability to change with ease, based on projects coming and going. From the beginning, we strove to understand the customer’s highest priorities driving the project while staying within a budget that met their ROI criteria.

Pioneer provides value as a system integrator with our experience in designing proven turnkey robotic solutions through robot and PLC programming. One requirement for the system was to be adaptable for an array of parts, which we accomplished by providing removable fixtures specific to each part. Job changeover was smooth, with maintenance performing a minor change of fixtures and selecting the right job input on the operator HMI. The integration of a manual turn-style table allowed for part load and unload while keeping the operator out of the work cell.

Sanding - Pioneer Industrial Systems

One specific challenge that we experienced was the difficult task of sanding the underside of the part. Our solution was to mount the fixturing to an automated rack and pinion system that flipped the part during sanding pad changes.

Partnering with a leading robot tool supplier provided Pioneer with the expertise in sourcing the best tool for the customer’s application. The device incorporated pressure sensing technology while also providing dust containment at the source. The versatility of a quick tool change allowed an operator to safely stage sanding pads without interrupting the system’s operation.

FANUC’s Dual Check Safety (DCS) package was installed in the robot to reduce the safety distance requirements around the robot cell by defining protective DCS zones around the working robot envelope. Robot travel outside these safety zones creates an immediate stop which allowed for a small cell, minimizing valuable floor space. Using RoboGuide, FANUC’s 3D simulation software, Pioneer was able to identify a FANUC robot that would meet the payload and reach requirements for this system. A FANUC M710iC/70 robot was selected for this process based on payload calculations and reach studies. The robot mounted to a plate that was fastened directly to the concrete floor in the plant.

Upon customer approval of all the mechanical and electrical drawings, materials were ordered, and the build began on Pioneer’s shop floor. Once the cell assembly was complete, the customer came to Pioneer for an on-site runoff. After customer approval on the runoff, the machine was disassembled, shipped, and Pioneer’s assembly crew went on-site to install the equipment. Installation of the system took place during standard working hours since the system was offline, and the footprint was in a designated area clear of daily operations. The installation was seamless since the system was fully operational on Pioneer’s floor, and only required minor touchups on part path programming.

Outcomes of Success

The customer was able to automate a messy and labor-intensive manual operation that contained multiple safety concerns. The work area was cleaned by implementing a point-of-source dust collection system, which vastly improved air quality. Safety improved by removing the operator from the sanding process. And by having the operator unload, check the quality, and load the next part all while the robot was sanding another part, the throughput increased significantly. Based on these factors, this was deemed a very successful project from the management team.

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