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Local Meets International in Collingwood

VOC Canada, the world’s largest safety supplier, taps Collingwood firm ARO Technologies for robotics solution

Inspecting and packing rolls of webbing is backbreaking work. Just ask the people at Collingwood-based VOC Canada, whose mainstay is manufacturing webbing for seatbelts and other applications. First comes webbing inspection, which is a manual process, then any remedial work required, re-spooling and finally stacking the heavy rolls onto pallets.

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A robot for heavy lifting

VOC is part of Autoliv, the world’s largest safety supplier, with sales to all major car manufacturers worldwide. The company focuses on consistency and quality for their customers and confidence and security for their employees. Part of that confidence includes keeping employees safe and in good health. As webbing is constantly being inspected, spooled and stacked, it occurred to VOC that the most physically challenging part of the job—stacking rolls of webbing—could be automated. “The aims of the project are to reduce the likelihood of ergonomic injuries and to improve productivity,” says Simon Whiddett, VOC’s Technical Manager.

Enter VOC’s neighbour, ARO Technologies, located (literally) just down the street. ARO builds custom machinery including robots, as well as handling complex electrical engineering work like sensor and control integration. ARO has carried out automation, robotics and systems integration work for companies across North America, as well as local firms like the Blue Mountain Fruit Company, Bay Growers, Collwest Grain Ltd. and Pilkington Glass of Canada. The company also handles programming and automation for the Town of The Blue Mountains’ waste water systems and all of Clearview Township’s water automation and data gathering.

“I know the good people at VOC,” says Rick Redpath, ARO’s founder and President. “So when they expressed interest in a robot that could handle webbing, it seemed like a natural fit.”

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Local firm beats out GTA competition

ARO put a proposal together for VOC and the two companies went back and forth on it until they had focused in precisely on project parameters. When VOC sent out a formal request for proposal, ARO beat out some stiff competition from the GTA. “Over the process of figuring out exactly what was needed we formed a good working relationship and VOC gained confidence in our abilities,” notes Redpath. “It also helped that we were in Collingwood.” Redpath credits the win to the strength of ARO’s proposal as well as competitive pricing.

Robot palletizes & packs

The end result is a palletizing robot that also helps with product packing. Once each section of webbing has been spooled, the roll is manually inspected again. The number of stickers will indicate whether the roll meets the recipient’s quality standards. Then the palletizing robot stacks the spool on skids carrying up to 72 rolls each. Skids are automatically moved outside of the palletizing area, ready for forklift pickup. This robot is the second in a series, complementing the product inspection gantries fabricated by ARO and already installed at VOC.

One of the hardest things for ARO was deciding on the best method for picking up webbing rolls. Tightly wound spirals weighing over 30 pounds each, rolls can easily come apart during handling. The ultimate solution was one that was rejected early on: suction. Vacuum pick-up works well for cardboard boxes and other materials that are relatively airtight, but air readily leaks through rolls of webbing. “We ended up simply throwing a ton of vacuum at it,” laughs Redpath. “It’s definitely the best solution and works every time.”

Redpath and Whiddett are both excited to see how much productivity will increase once the robot is put to work in August 2020. If all goes smoothly, there should be more roll-handling automation on the horizon for the rest of the journey from palletizer to delivery truck.