RPM International Tool and Die is New Zealand’s largest privately owned and operated tool and die manufacturer. RPM started out as a traditional tool and die manufacturer but has expanded to provide full automation solutions, some eight years ago.
Aaron Dwight, director of production at RPM, believes that this was the company’s natural evolution. “Customers were enquiring about automated systems that could effectively handle the moulds that we were producing.”
A Kiwi success story, RPM is now one of New Zealand’s largest engineering operations. Residing in a purpose-built 30,000 square ft premises on Auckland’s North Shore, RPM delivers a turnkey automation solution.
Dwight said that RPM’s differentiator is its unique project approach, thus according to customer feedback. “We always feel we could do better, and we learn from every project. Each job becomes a project of continuous improvement.”
In it for the long haul
The preparation period for a project involves various phases. Dwight said that once a customer has a concept in mind, it is their job to understand the bigger picture. “We look at what they currently have, possible future requirements and how to produce something that is scalable.”
From this process a scope is then created, and this is where RPM engages their trusted partners. “Partners have been hand-selected. These are companies who walk the long journey with us and who share our sentiment about quality,” he said.
“They become trusted advisors and play a vital role in the project group in terms of scoping the job and coming up with innovative ways to bring the customer’s brief to life.”
One of these partners is SMC Corporation New Zealand. Dwight said that they deal with SMC on multiple levels – from product selection through to special engineering. The team includes SMC team members from New Zealand and Australia who meet with RPM on a weekly basis to discuss the project.
“This is a long-term commitment; it can take up to two years for a project to start rolling out. During this time, we require ongoing communication and a transparent relationship. We are open with one another about budgets, targets that need to be achieved and key deliverables. Trust is an essential part of this relationship,” said Dwight.
Meeting stringent automation requirements
One of their latest projects focused on the modernisation of a Sydney-based facility.
“This particular customer packs pharmaceutical products and requires stringent hygiene and clean room standards,” said Dwight. Previously, the customer had been doing most of the packing by hand into plastic lined cardboard boxes. This was not an ideal situation, considering the types of products being handled.”
The customer wanted to automate the production line and removing as many “hands” from the process as possible. “The key focus was on speed of output, volume, and quality control”.
The machine had to pack vitamins into viles with closure (packed into layers), or bulk pack the vitamins into vacuum sealed bags. “The project involved seven systems,” said Dwight.
The packaging was formed by injection and blow moulding. The product was then taken from the moulding machine through a vision checking system to ensure quality was met, after which it moved through to a conveyor and into a different packing area.
“In this area, products could be bulk packed from a carousel bin which is filled to a level and then ejected from the packing machine onto an AIV which takes it back to a central point. From here, it is vacuum sealed in a ‘brick product’ which is then sent off for final packing,” said Dwight.
Finally, the vacuum packed, and labelled product is conveyed from the clean room into a white room where it is packed and palletised. The whole process does not involve any human handling.
One of the challenges in this application was the vacuum head. “We needed a fail-safe and hygienic option,” said Dwight.
Foam vacuum by SMC Head meets the brief
Together with SMC’s engineering team, a foam vacuum head was developed. One of the concerns when working with a substance like foam is that it may crumble or break over time and this would be detrimental in a cleanroom environment.
After development, the SMC vacuum head was tested in a working environment for a period of four months. Testing proved that the product would be suitable, and the SMC vacuum head could be included with confidence. “It felt good to validate the thinking and mitigate the risk by testing in this way. This small idea developed together with the SMC team turned into something big with real competitive advantages,” said Dwight.
The new system outshines its predecessor which previously delivered low volumes and came with numerous quality issues relating to manual inspections carried out by workers. “The new system has one operator (as opposed to 14) and delivers 15 426 parts per hour and 54 vacuum packs per hour – all quality tested and hygienically handled”.
According to Peter Wilson, branch manager at SMC New Zealand these joint projects challenges the SMC team and helps them to develop and grow on an engineering level too. “The projects we do with companies like RPM will see us dig deep into the product portfolio to find the best fit. If we don’t have the right fit, often a new product is developed and this in turn grows our product offering and variety of applications we can compete in even further.”
Products are designed to be inherently energy efficient, safe, and smart but it is up to SMC to ensure the right fit and combination of products to make the whole machine work at its optimum level.
Often these projects require SMC to work with other component suppliers to deliver a ‘plug and play’ solution for certain parts of the build. “In a recent project, SMC and the drives supplier had to work together to deliver a linear drive connected to a motor. There will always be pneumatic and mechanical challenges, but we work together to ensure the customers gets a good solution,” said Wilson.
Some of the products used in this project which really made a standout performance include the VB Series Vacuum Ejectors for the pick and place operation. These were chosen for their quick response time, coupled in with their energy saving abilities, making them a great choice for this project.
One of unsung heroes that forms a key part of the machine build is the SMC Minitec. Proven to be cost effective, functional, and quick and easy to assemble, Dwight likens it to a mechano-set. “It is fun to work with and can be easily configured in many different configurations”.
RPM have also been impressed by SMC’s range of safety products. “Safety is a key factor in our design. We are always looking to improve safety and allow the customer to make a quick recovery,” said Dwight.
According to Dwight, growing a business takes a very long time and SMC has been a partner who is in it for the long haul. “It is not just about the product but the team’s knowledge and their willingness to overcome challenges.”
SMC carries a large local stock holding and has an attitude that is based on “making it happen”. This is something that Aaron believes makes them the ideal partner.
“We think alike, RPM and SMC both seek to continuously improve and deliver designs to exact customer requirements. We look forward to many more challenging (and not so challenging) projects with RPM,” concludes Wilson.