SA-designed industrial automation (yes, industrial robots) is set to make an international impact, says Roger Houghton
There’s no reason that only the big international players should have the benefit of industrial robots, two inventive South Africans reasoned – so they built their own and are getting set to market it on the global stage. Gauteng’s Möller brothers, Ivan and Anton, have developed an uncomplicated, inexpensive robot using CNC three-axis technology. The prototype is already fully operational making metal tops for floor cleaning mops at a factory in Babelegi, north of Pretoria. Target price for the basic robot is in the region of R300 000 and the designers are confident it can pay for itself in about two years locally when used for labour-intensive, repetitive work. There are plans for a rental option, too. Four improved models with two four-axis arms, are already being manufactured.
The project grew from an idea in Ivan’s head to an operating prototype in only six months. What kick-started the process was a visit to the Shanghai Industrial Automation Show in China. The high cost and complexity of specialised robotics on display highlighted the opportunity to make an affordable, versatile small machine – and that is what they have done. They learnt while in China that the global growth in industrial automation over the next five years was expected to be in the region of 2 000 per cent. Much of the equipment is expected to be purchased by small manufacturing operations in China as wages there increase rapidly. If the Möller name seems strangely familiar, regular readers will recall that Anton was featured in the October issue of Popular Mechanics as a maker of medieval armour.
He develops the computer software used for the industrial robots; Ivan is responsible for overall conceptualisation, design and production engineering. What’s remarkable is that neither brother has any formal tertiary qualification. Ivan spent four years studying at the Vaal Tech and Wits, but eventually gave up on this route. At 19 he bought a lathe and started working for himself as a turner in a garage on a plot near Benoni. Making an automated tool changer for the lathe started him on the road to industrial automation. Subsequently, a Centurion CNC club run by Professor Rudy du Preez has proved to be a significant inspiration.
Ivan’s big break came five years ago when he joined Andrea Meneghelli, the son of the founder of Academy Brushware, Vittorino, who came from a brush-making family background in Italy. What had started as a two-man business in a backyard making paint brushes is now a Bidvest company housed in a large factory building. Ivan was tasked with maintaining the existing equipment as well as designing and manufacturing new machines. His first major project was to make an automated machine to bend the wire frame and thread the end for paint rollers. He built two machines that are still operating, having each made more than a million handles. A further two improved machines are being built.
The mechanical four-axis robots in development have arms that use step motors controlled by a computer and Mesa card combination. The task-specific tooling that will typically be bolted to the robot will be controlled by a programmable logic controller (PLC), which will communicate with the robot control computers to co-ordinate the physical process. “We use straightforward G-Code programme language, which is used internationally for CNC machines and we receive excellent support from the Linux CNC Internet forum,” Anton says.
“The system is plug-and-play, so if there is a problem we will swap the complete unit. By plugging a modem into a USB port we can use a Team Viewer to programme the unit remotely from South Africa.” Chinese investors are due here in early 2016 to see for themselves. The likelihood is that certain components and assembly will take place in China; the control panels will be SA-built using technology and systems sourced from the United States.
This article about industrial robots was originally published in the May 2016 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine.