White Paper: The Rise of T-Slot Aluminum Extrusion Profiles in North American Automation, Machine Building & Safety Guarding

Executive Summary

Known for being light weight, durable and robust, extruded aluminum framing has been used in North American manufacturing for necessary but basic functions like safety hard guarding and building simple tables and industrial workbenches. European manufacturers however, have used the same material with great results for more innovative, cutting-edge designs and processes, including:

•      Single and multi-axis linear motion

•      Machine building

•      Automation and material handling applications

To remain competitive in a global economy, North American manufacturers must consider alternatives that reduce cost and improve adaptability for changing manufacturing needs.  For example, traditional welded, painted steel applications are shifting to structural aluminum for the most critical processes.  Aluminum extrusion profiles offer a lighter, reusable and more cost-effective solution than traditional welded steel for a variety of manufacturing processes, including assembly, automation, linear motion and material handling needs.

The European Roots of Structural Aluminum in Machine Building

Structural AluminumThe use of t-slot aluminum extrusions for machine building applications began in Germany, in 1976.  Like most great concepts, the innovative idea was born out of necessity. Building custom machines with steel was not only time-intensive, but also expensive.  Design changes and process alterations were typical in machine building, causing missed deadlines and late delivery dates that resulted in lost profits.European manufacturers – with many German engineers leading the charge – developed a system of extruded aluminum framing and modular components that worked together to provide robust solutions for a wide range of assembly, manufacturing, automation and materials handling needs.

This not only bested the engineering and build time associated with the common practice of welding, grinding, priming and painting steel tubing, but also provided design flexibility. If engineers needed to make a design or process change, it was much easier to implement with reusable structural aluminum than rigid and heavy steel, making the manufacturer a more agile and profitable enterprise.

The t-slot aluminum profile system European manufacturers employed was highly tested and precisely engineered. Design of fasteners and modular components were heavily tested before products were introduced to the marketplace. As a result, many European manufacturers were quick to embrace this new technology in mission-critical processes, like automation.

Slowly, the use of this lightweight but robust material spread around the continent and across the ocean.

 

T-slot Aluminum Extrusion Profiles Come to North America

As a country that was built on steel mills and traditional manufacturing methodology, North American companies were reluctant to adopt aluminum extrusion profiles in the same way that Europeans did. Welded, painted steel was the foundation for machine bases, frames, structures, assembly lines and automation cells for American manufacturers.

When structural aluminum was introduced into this marketplace, it was originally for safety hard guarding and simple tables or industrial workbenches.  In North America today, extruded aluminum framing is widely used, very effectively in machine guarding, which persists as the most popular application for this versatile material. Although tough, durable and effective for this task, the material is just as impressive – if not more impressive – when used for advanced applications.

Early Tribulations – Seeing the success of their European peers, during the mid-to-late 1990s, some North American manufacturers pushed the use of structural aluminum in more complex processes. However, because distributors were selling the profile for simpler applications, tight tolerances, quality and precision fit were not priorities. 

Early extruded aluminum profile promoters rarely paid attention to project requirements and product failures were common.  When structural aluminum was used in more complex processes, projects frequently vibrated apart and fasteners failed to work as designed. Despite the eventual development of precise fasteners and components that would make extruded aluminum framing viable for more complex applications, few manufacturers were confident enough in the technology to make it a critical part of their processes.

Industry Breakthroughs – As more manufacturers inquired about the capability of t-slot aluminum framing in complex applications, profile companies answered the call with a broad base of precisely manufactured profile, fasteners and components that could be utilized in a variety of industries.

Companies willing to make the leap to structural aluminum framing have yielded great success, with the help of knowledgeable product engineers specializing in the material.  One U.S.-based company, MB Kit Systems Inc., has established a leadership position in this arena for more than 20 years. By relying on the world’s best aluminum extruders, MB Kit Systems uses structural aluminum profile to create robust structures, sub-structures, machine bases, frames, work stations, laser enclosures, sound containment enclosures, and custom or specialty enclosures for a wide array of applications to replace welded, painted steel. Whether using t-slot extrusion profiles to create a simple structure or complex linear motion processes, the material can be used across industries – from aerospace to electric vehicle manufacturers to medical device providers.

Linear Structure

More than 40 years after its first use, structural aluminum profiles and components have become critical to the design of innovative mechanical solutions across a variety of industries.

Aerospace – MB Kit Systems provides t-slot extrusion aluminum framing for a variety of aerospace applications, including space exploration and commercial aircraft production.  NASA used MB Kit Systems’ support extensively for its Mars exploration program and a major commercial airline manufacturer had MB Kit Systems jointly design a 40-foot-long unit with multiple XY axis and ball-screw Z axis to test the integrity of aircraft components. 

Beverage Bottling – Working closely with a global provider of Safety Mitigation and Compliance, MB Kit Systems was brought in to design and provide safety hard guarding for an international beverage bottler. The safety hard guarding consisted of fixed wire mesh panels, removable wire mesh panels, safety switched sliding doors and gates, hinged doors and light curtain muting stands to create an integrated safety solution for a complex bottle de-palletizing operation that posed significant worker safety threats. The project involves more than 10 North American bottling operations, with each station requiring a unique solution to meet worker safety needs, as well as high-speed production demands.  Future safety requirements for this bottler are expected to increase significantly once seasonal demand for the bottled product is met each year. 

Consumer Product Testing“Green” Water Solutions – A South American provider of boxed water products contacted MB Kit Systems for help in designing a robust solution for filling 5-liter water bags for consumption in areas where safe water supplies are questionable.  Within six months, MB Kit Systems delivered a prototype for customer review.  Minor changes were quickly completed and the end user ordered multiple units for immediate delivery. This overhead gantry linear motion application is one example of the many uses for extruded aluminum framing in green manufacturing.

Personal Care Products – MB Kit Systems has been specified as the “primary provider” of structural aluminum profile and modular component solutions for an Ohio-based, international producer of personal care products. Many of these components have been assembled to complete linear motion processes for material handling applications. Specific product lines include baby care and feminine care hygiene products divisions.   

Alternative Energy Industry – Several solar energy panel producers and major machine builders for the glass handling industry rely on MB Kit Systems to deliver a wide range of production machinery related to panel assembly, handling and packaging.  MB Kit Systems delivers complex solutions that incorporate XYZ linear motion within T-slot aluminum profiles. 

Consumer Product Testing – For an Ohio provider of consumer product testing and certification, MB Kit Systems has become the go-to source for solutions to some unusual requests.  MB Kit Systems recently designed test equipment to evaluate the life expectancy of paint brushes, power washers, refrigerator hinges and saw blades, among other everyday products. MB Kit System’s engineering team and structural aluminum product line have consistently succeeded in meeting the challenges of these unique applications. 

The Right Fit for Cutting-Edge Technology – MB Kit Systems also works with an extensive group of advanced technology companies that produce computer hard drives, cell and smart phones, electric vehicles and more. The U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Defense and pharmaceutical/medical companies across the country also are among organizations that regularly call on MB Kit Systems for automation solutions.

Why not Steel?

It’s not just about trying a new technology that should make t-slot aluminum framing attractive to North American manufacturers. For many reasons, steel simply cannot provide the same results as aluminum profile.  For example, steel structures take much longer to engineer and assemble than aluminum. And, chances are, once a team has finished welding, grinding and painting the steel to exact measurements, there will be a design or process change. The team must modify the structure and repeat the same labor-intensive process it took to get there.  Even after the final steel product is in place, there’s still ongoing maintenance with which to be concerned. Steel is prone to rust, so care must be taken to maintain the metal and repaint regularly.

When using structural aluminum instead of steel, there is no welding, grinding or painting. If a design change occurs, engineers quickly re-configure the structural aluminum components as needed with little slow-down. This flexibility means fewer delays and missed deadlines so production lines start up sooner and profits flow faster. Profiles can be reused over and over as needs change.

And unlike steel, there are no scratches, warping, flaking paint or rust to worry about. The end product not only looks as good 10 years down the road as it did on installation, but it’s as strong and robust as it was on Day One, too.

And it’s not just plant managers who reap the benefits of using extruded aluminum framing in their manufacturing processes. Engineers and executives have fewer risks and higher rewards too. Structural aluminum profile can be engineered to a much more precise level from the start than steel ever could be. Near-perfect measurements and cuts mean fewer delays and the ability to meet even the tightest deadlines. And with ever-growing regulations and compliance demands for virtually every industry, design and process changes can be met faster and cheaper. This also gives engineers the ability to innovate and react faster to market conditions with quicker changeovers.  All of this combines to bring a lighter-weight, flexible solution with the lowest total cost of ownership possible.

More and more machine builders, integrators and solution providers have started to recognize the advantages of using t-slot extruded aluminum product lines for machine bases, frames, structures, sub-structures, assembly lines and automation cells. Still, North American manufacturers and machine builders have much to look forward to with further adoption of this material.

The Future of Structural Aluminum in North America

Modular, off-the-shelf components are helping to drive the growth in extruded aluminum custom solutions using belt-driven actuators with XYZ linear motion. The need for North American manufacturers to become and stay competitive in a global marketplace that rewards low-cost producers will further drive the market for structural aluminum and modular components.

Even for complex processes with multiple components, proven vendors like MB Kit Systems can create solutions that are assembled faster and offer a lower total cost of ownership than found in traditional products. These custom solutions made from off-the-shelf components are faster to engineer, build and test than their steel counterparts. Making changes to an assembled product can happen quickly and easily.

Aluminum Extrusion Profile

Surprisingly, it’s not any facet of the design, assembly or implementation phases that takes the most time when creating an aluminum profile solution. Rather, most companies find the longest delays in getting the management buy-in to test the product. Some companies fear that the product is not robust enough to handle their heavy-duty needs; however, this is simply not the case. With case studies across industries and projects, the bottom line is clear:

•      Extruded T-slot aluminum profile is just as strong as steel

•      It is faster to engineer and assemble

•      It’s cheaper and easier to maintain.

To find out more about how structural aluminum profile can save your machine building, manufacturing or automation processes time and money, visit MB Kit Systems or contact us.

We’ll learn your requirements and help you communicate the benefits of structural aluminum profile to your internal team. Whether your request is simple safety hard guarding or a structure paired with complex linear motion, we can meet your need. Together, we’ll design and implement a custom solution in less time and at a lower total cost than you’ve ever experienced previously.