Automation enhances productivity: the teamwork of Restart, ZF Group, and ABB

The ZF Group plant in Ostellato needed to carry out the assembly of a pump model in 15 seconds, so they turned to Restart, a company specialized in providing turnkey automatic systems for the industry. Restart created a tailored assembly cell, where one of the strengths lies in ABB robots. We spoke with Gil Gonçalves, General Manager (Gardone & Ostellato Plants) & Pump Portfolio Director at ZF Group; Flavio Pistocchi, co-founder of Restart along with Rossano Cioni; Roberto Zambardi, Engineering Manager at ZF Group; Roberto Pattaro, Innovation Officer at ZF Group.

ZF Group, a company that ranks among the top three automotive component suppliers in the world, needed to automate its production line of the VA-VE electric pump at its Ostellato plant (in the province of Ferrara), which boasts 11,000 m2 and 380 employees. “We are the only plant in the group,” says Gil Gonçalves, “to produce this type of pumps, and we managed to keep everything ‘local’, from development to supply; now we produce about 2 million pieces a year. Recently, the end customer had asked for a 30% price reduction for this electric pump. So we reduced the number of components, maintaining the same quality and performance standard, but it wasn’t enough: we had to fully automate its production.” This is where Restart came into play, a company from the province of Livorno established in 2001 as a service provider for ABB robots and Siemens machinery, which over time began to develop its own applications. “In 2011,” Flavio Pistocchi explains, “we partnered with MASMEC, allowing us to expand both in terms of workforce and employees; in fact, we opened a precision mechanical workshop, called MECSTART, dedicated to the world of machinery for the production of complex parts.”

“At Restart,” says Roberto Zambardi, “we found a partner to help us find the right concept for the automated line, staying within the budget required by the customer and the parent company, which is not an easy task.” This line is the result of a localization project, so that the European production volumes of the VA-VE pump series would remain in Europe, without having to relocate to more “economic” countries. Since a fully manual assembly was no longer sustainable, the line has been almost 100% automated, with only one operator dedicated to the cell, managing the plant without having to oversee all assembly operations.

How does the line assembling the pump VA-VE work? There is a transfer that advances the pump bodies to different stations where components such as gears and bushes are assembled. The robots (3 IRB 1200 from ABB) pick up the individual components and, along with various automation systems, assemble them; a complex operation, as it involves working with tolerances in the order of microns. Then, the assembled pump is transferred to the test bench, where it is certified. The only two operations still performed by the operator are inserting a gasket, as it is a very complex action to automate, and feeding the material. It is a highly productive line, capable of assembling a pump in 15 seconds.

“Restart,” says Roberto Pattaro, “has also worked very well on the control and management software: it is an integrated system with traceability; each operation of the line is directly monitored by the system and recorded. The supervision environment has been developed entirely online, so we can access operating, assembly, and testing data directly from a web page from the office. Therefore, it is a very user-friendly system for everyone, as operators immediately felt comfortable with it. As for the robotics part, we instructed Restart to use ABB robots, a specification of ours for years but also one of their historical partners.” “In addition to being partners for years and a specification of ZF,” explains Flavio Pistocchi, “the choice fell on ABB robots mainly for their mechanical characteristics, which perfectly match the operations to be performed on this line. ABB robots, in fact, have a torsional rigidity that is unique in its kind, allowing us to comply with positioning requirements that other robots would not be able to meet. Moreover, in our HMI, the robot is managed transparently in the software, so a dedicated operator panel is not necessary.”

“Since the early years,” says Gil Gonçalves, “at the Ostellato plant, we have focused on automation, in fact, we have 70 ABB robots inside the factory. ABB is an important partner for us: we have also subscribed to the ABB Robot Care contract, a maintenance program. Assistance is fundamental for us because we cannot afford to stop since competitiveness is high, so an immediate response from our suppliers is a big advantage, and both ABB and Restart can provide it.”

After the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a general acceleration in terms of digitalization and automation. “In Western Europe,” says Gil Gonçalves, “we have an advantage in this regard: when we introduce robots into production, the ROI is very fast.” Flavio Pistocchi concludes: “Automation is perhaps the only way to save Italian and European productivity: the Asian market has grown a lot from a qualitative, as well as quantitative, point of view. We must be able to face the challenges of the future and not let ourselves be overtaken, and in this, automation and robotics are the turning point.”

Article by Rossana Pasian
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L’automazione migliora la produttività: il lavoro di squadra di Restart, ZF Group e ABB


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