Robust robotics

Whether you want to strip coatings off of an aircraft, pick and place small parts or move a heavy load, BRIC Engineered Systems Ltd. has an arsenal of automated robotic capabilities to customize a solution to even the most intricate specifications. And it is selling these solutions to customers who are for the most part outside Canada, not an easy feat for a small company with sales between $5 million and $10 million a year.

May 13, 2011   by Noelle Dickey

Ralph and Isabella Roberts with prototypes used to design an automated system for coating or de-coating aircraft. Photo: Noelle Dickey

Whether you want to strip coatings off of an aircraft, pick and place small parts or move a heavy load, BRIC Engineered Systems Ltd. has an arsenal of automated robotic capabilities to customize a solution to even the most intricate specifications. And it is selling these solutions to customers who are for the most part outside Canada, not an easy feat for a small company with sales between $5 million and $10 million a year.

The Oshawa, Ont.-based company got its start in 1989 when owners, Isabelle Roberts, a computer engineer, and her husband Ralph Roberts, who specializes in process and motion control, designed and built an automated guided vehicle for moving materials around a warehouse. But they were ahead of their time.

“We talked to forklift companies and we did all the right things, the market just wasn’t ready,” says Isabelle Roberts. “It was scary to some people back then.”

Although that concept didn’t fly, they used their expertise in motion control and automation to create solutions for the chemical, plastics and aerospace industries.

“I know that’s a broad range, but I think that’s one of the reasons we’re still around. We didn’t focus on automotive. In fact, we tried to stay away from it because we felt at the time it was a crowded market and there were other opportunities,” says Roberts.

Today, BRIC employs 40 people and its large-scale gantry robotic systems and automated workcells, ranging in price from $50,000 to $400,000, provide solutions for a broad range of industrial and defense applications, such as coating and coating removal, specialized welding, assembly, processing and material handling.

Robust robotics
BRIC’s standard line of heavy duty gantry robot systems are servo-based electro-mechanical systems that consist of a combination of COTS components, and motion controllers, which are currently supplied by Parker Hannifen Canada – a recent partnership that allows BRIC to supply more modular solutions, quicker delivery and improved support worldwide.

BRIC’s SuperARM, StrongARM and the SnakeARM robots are designed to automate labour-intensive loading and off-loading processes. The SuperARM handles a wide range of parts of various sizes, while the StrongARM handles heavy loads using a thrust bearing technology, and the SnakeARM is designed for inspecting and coating large items, ideal for rail, automotive and aerospace industries.

For manufacturers with small parts, BRIC’s Flexible Intelligent System (FIS) is a pick and place technology capable of assembly, processing, unscrambling and sorting at high speed.

The company also designed what it calls the Mantis Robot, which integrates CO2 or fibre lasers for coating and coating removal, cutting, welding or marking. Over the past few years BRIC has been working with the US Department of Defense in testing, evaluating and implementing a laser de-coating system to remove paint and other coatings from aircraft parts and components, which was traditionally a manually intensive process using harsh chemicals that created hazardous waste.

The challenge with the CO2 laser is getting the beam to the end of the robot arm. “To do that you have to use mirrors and tubing to create the beam delivery system. The mirrors must be aligned properly to send the beam and direct it through the joints of the arm to the work piece,” she says.

Aptly named because the robotic arm resembles that of a praying mantis, this system also incorporates BRIC’s Contour Following Technology (CFT), a vision capability using sensors and integrated software. This enables the robot to follow the surface of a part without knowing anything about it and maintain a certain distance, while remaining perpendicular to it.

“Our clients have many different parts. It wouldn’t be feasible to reprogram each one,” says Roberts.

For all of its products, BRIC uses motion controllers with an open architecture system for easy integration and programming. Off-the-shelf robots such as those made by Fanuc and ABB have closed controllers and are limited in terms of what you can do if you need access to the kinematics and software.

Concurrent Technologies Corp., a Fairborn, Ohio contractor for the US Air Force, is using two BRIC systems with its contour following technology.

A laser de-coating system in action. Photo: BRIC

For one of the systems, BRIC re-engineered a gantry robot that the US Air Force was no longer using. “We removed all of the electronics and some of the mechanical components and replaced them, and added our contour following subsystem,” says Roberts.

The second system is a Mantis Robot. Both are being used to remove coatings from F-16, B-52 and KC-135 military aircrafts.

“Traditionally, de-coating was a manual process using methylene-chloride or plastic media,” says Gerard Mongelli, executive director of technical and logistics support for Concurrent Technologies. “We wanted to reduce the environmental burden on the air force depots by finding an alternative technology that could meet the production requirements and be environmentally sound.”

The Mantis can also be used in the marine industry to strip coatings from ships and on commercial aircraft, two industries BRIC is currently targeting.

One of BRIC’s only Canadian clients is Kingston, Ont.-based G.S. Manufacturing, a supplier of aluminum laundry carts for hospitals and institutions.

“BRIC supplied us with an ergonomically designed welding table that bends the rails of our carts,” says Cathy Ballow, health and safety manager at G.S. Manufacturing. “It was done manually before and we were getting a lot of shoulder injuries due to the repetitive nature of the bending process.”

BRIC’s technology is also capable testing and packaging live ammunition, degating plastic parts and even automating pipe and tube handling for the mining and oil and gas industries.

The export business
The majority of BRIC’s technology and products are exported to the US, Brazil and abroad, and for a small SME that’s not an easy feat.

“When you’re a small business there’s limited resources and the people managing the business tend to wear too many hats,” says Roberts. “But one of the key things that people often overlook or not pay enough attention to is culture.”

Understanding how people in different geographical areas do business is key. BRIC sets up partnerships with local companies in the target market or hires someone from the area to call on clients.

“I think it’s important. If someone is buying from you, they need to trust that you will deliver. That level of trust doesn’t come easily and needs to be taken seriously,” says Roberts.

For BRIC, the US market was the most difficult to break into. “Everyone wants to be in that market, the expectations are high and you’re competing with the best in the world,” she says. But generally, Canada is highly regarded around the world. “When you present a product that’s made in Canada, often the reaction we get is ‘well it must be good.’”

For new companies looking to export, Roberts says one of the biggest mistakes is not understanding how long it takes and how much it will cost to break into new export markets. “It doesn’t just happen over night. It’s a long process and it’s costly. As a general rule of thumb you should be prepared to invest two to three years before you might even get your first sale. When you’re a small company that is a long time.”

Over the past few years, BRIC has invested heavily in R&D and worked in partnership with the University of Waterloo and University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT).

“You have to focus on being ahead of the competition,” says Roberts. “Patents are important in certain cases, but I don’t think they’re the complete answer. As long as you’re leading with new innovations and technologies, and always looking to improve your products and services, those that are copying you will always be one step behind.”

That said, BRIC recently announced the launch of its newest product line, the BOT Links R-Series, S-Series and Optimum Series. All of them include the Contour Following Technology, and feature a new open architecture, composite-based design. The R-Series is designed for long reach application, ideal for coating and de-coating large aircraft. It’s capable of reaching up to 6.1 metres and handles payloads up to 30 kilograms.

The S-Series are for high-speed applications often found in the packaging industry. It can reach speeds of 150 parts per minute and higher with a smaller reach of 1.5 metres and handles light payloads of under 1 kilogram. And the Optimum Series falls between the R- and S-Series, developed to compete directly with current COTS robots.

“This new line of BOT Links Robots offers customers the open architecture, flexibility and performance that has been missing from the robot industry,” says Roberts. “The BRIC BOT Links robots are designed specifically for non-automotive applications, filling a niche market that has historically been ignored by the large robot manufacturers.”

In addition, BRIC has a partnership with a UK-based company called Midas NDT, through which it provides automated non-destructive testing and inspection (NDI) equipment. The BOT Links line will also offer clients the ability to implement robot-based NDI to automate inspection processes.

Demand for industrial robots and advanced automation is in its ascendency – the International Federation of Robots (IFR) has forecast that industrial robot sales will continue to increase over the next decade by an average of 10% annually. With such diverse technology and flexible programming, BRIC intends to take advantage of the upswing.

Noelle Dickey is a Toronto-based business writer and editor, and former features editor of PLANT.

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