Cover Page

in Vol. 18 - May Issue - Year 2017
The Future has a Long History

Robotic machine

Setup phase

Process validation phase

Design phase

Birds-eye view of Norblast Plant

For the past forty years, the name Norblast has stood for research and innovation in the complex and articulated world of high-technology surface treatments. By now it’s a well-known fact that improvements in the performance of any mechanical system are strongly influenced by the superficial characteristics of the components that make up that system. A mechanical system subject to external forces, either simple or complex, exchanges actions and interactions among its components through the surfaces of those same components. The surfaces, or regions of material immediately underlying, therefore become the source of propagation of external forces inside the mechanical system. Consequently, improving the condition of component surfaces leads to the possibility of improving the performance of the entire system. The flourishing of innovative thermal and mechanical treatments in recent years is technology’s answer to the growing demand for performance and reliability, or, in other words, for quality. It would be vague to speak about surface treatments in general terms without defining context and objectives.

Different industrial situations have different needs and they tend towards innovation in ways that at times are just as greatly diverse. When speaking about highly technological environments, the field of aviation instinctively comes to mind. Mankind’s challenge to conquer space is most fascinating and certainly tied to the concept of technology. It’s easily understood that innovation must go from the study phase to the applicative phase by passing through an incredibly effective and strict confirmation and validation process. Any malfunction in this field, even the smallest and apparently insignificant, can lead to catastrophic consequences. All this does not mean that innovation should not be pursued, but, to the contrary, it means that innovation should be developed on the basis of profound knowledge and mastery of the processes involved. It’s necessary to predict even the smallest risk factor and to establish preventive measures.
Another environment characterized by an incredibly high level of technology is the biomedical field, perhaps less striking compared to the space race, but nevertheless buzzing and continuously searching for new breakthroughs. Thinking about what impact it can have on the quality of life, the importance of this field is readily appreciable along with the risks inherent in defective instruments or components. Knowledge is fundamental, but knowledge must be built brick-by-brick. That is why investigating, examining in depth, experimenting, making mistakes and understanding what works and what doesn’t work becomes necessary in order to build up a wealth of knowledge indispensable in order to carry out research in an industrial environment.

A Proudly Italian "Family Company"

The company was founded in 1977 as a builder of compressed air-peening and blast-cleaning machines. The 1980’s were a decade of exciting entrepreneurship. The Italian market wanted more and more products and the key to success was being able to satisfy demand. Surface treatment was considered a mere aesthetic procedure. The idea that something technological was happening or that it would actually be possible to improve component performance would mature only several years later. Nowadays, there are university courses dedicated to "surface engineering" and it seems impossible that in those past years it was a completely different thing. For a company with barely twenty employees, the idea of doing research seemed impossible. The first step was to create a small experimental center where it would be possible to perform treatments and to try new solutions. In order to ensure the presence of greater scientific contents in their tests, Norblast decided to do their research in cooperation with Italian universities. This more structural approach made that small center grow to the point where it became a separate company. Today, that company is called Peen Service, a fully-fledged research and development center in the Norblast Group. In the beginning, its small size might have been a punishing limit for Norblast, but this limit was overcome thanks to strong determination and to the conviction that it would be possible to “ennoble” finishing treatments and to raise them to the rank of real technological surface treatments. Over the years, Norblast has grown, while at the same time maintaining its typical family characteristics with a strong desire to face challenges. The ultimate objective is to provide concrete and tailor-made solutions that improve a single process or an entire production system.

Design Begins by Listening

Listening to clients’ requirements, to their objectives, and to the overall surrounding conditions are among the fundamental moments in a good design process. It’s necessary to investigate and to understand in order to suggest solutions. Experience gained on the job and during research makes it possible to interact with clients in a synergic process, which, through a preventive analysis of advantages and disadvantages tied to various solutions, leads to the final optimal configuration.

One of the most recent challenges concerns a technological blast-cleaning plant for a biomedical industry. The objective is to favor attachment to the bone through a process of controlled roughness. The company produces tailor-made prosthetic components, with a plan to push towards extreme personalization of the components. Based on diagnostic exams and through computerized 3D modeling, the prosthetic components are manufactured according to the specific requirements of each single patient, in a process by which each prosthesis becomes unique, different from all the others. In these conditions, it no longer makes sense to talk about production lots. Overall production volumes, at times quite high, of this type of component are subdivided into a great number of extremely small lots, until they become as small as single piece lots. In similar conditions, even the traceability of process data, extremely important in the field of biomedicine, must be extended to the single component. Therefore, it becomes most important to identify every single relevant element and "freeze" it in appropriate process sheets similar to a shot-peening treatment. In addition, the small size of lots demands that the treatment plant be able to change format very quickly, with as little manual intervention as possible.
Once again, experience acquired by Peen Service makes it possible to design plants from the user’s point of view, creating systems that work by intuitive logic and are easy to manage. Naturally, this is not an abstract element, but rather a plant that must be properly included in the production flow of the company layout. All of this introduces further limiting factors. All of the requirements and the related boundary conditions that must be satisfied make it necessary to break with traditional schemes and to design systems in a new way. It’s necessary to come up with a completely automatic and robotic plant in which detailed configuration and accurate control of process parameters can guarantee precision and consistency in achieving required quality levels. Among the novelties that are being introduced are the use of a single robot that acts both as a component manipulator, loading and unloading components into and out of the peening machine, and as a mover of the component, inside the cabin, during treatment process. This configuration allows the plant to have a more compact size and to better manage consumable parts, leading to greater plant reliability and lifespan. In addition, the robot comes with a videocamera equipped with an automatic component recognition system that allows the required treatment flexibility and great liberty in positioning components coming from the previous steps in the production line.

The example just described is proof that there is no such thing as a truly efficient standard solution. Norblast’s distinctive mark, in an approach inspired by tailor-made logic, is personalization.

For Information:
Norblast S.r.l.
Via Carpigiani 7
40138, Bologna, Italy
Tel. +39.051.531037
Fax +39.051.530133
E-mail: norblast@norblast.it
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