A Little FRE History...
Flexible Robotic Environment, LLC (FRE) has been driven by its founder’s passion for robotics since its inception almost three decades ago. Dr. Vojislav Kalanovic, a Professor of Control of Dynamic Systems and Robotics, had the vision to tackle some of the most complex automation projects within the most challenging manufacturing processes. Since 1992, FRE has been delighting our clients with the most innovative, productive, robust, and user-friendly solutions available.
While teaching in Rapid City, South Dakota, Dr. Kalanovic focused his interest in advanced manufacturing on a very popular local industry – Black Hills Gold Jewelry. They say that ‘Necessity is the mother of Invention,’ and indeed, Dr. Kalanovic saw an opportunity in the labor intensive and highly manual work of polishing gold rings that are so popular in that region. FRE’s first automated polishing system was developed, and over twenty years later, and after hundreds of updates, iterations, as well as several technology patents, that first polishing system is still the cornerstone solution of FRE’s offering.
Today and Tomorrow
Today, FRE is a global leader in automated jewelry processing systems, and the product offering has expanded to a full-range of both standard and highly customizable solutions. With our headquarters in Buffalo, New York, and with full manufacturing, engineering, and service capability in Europe as well, FRE is focused on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean with our next expansion to Asia in the works.
It is this commitment that has earned FRE the honor of having its solutions within some of the most reputable names and highest volume manufacturers in the jewelry industry. Of course, a company does not need to be a Corporate giant or a multi-national firm to be a good candidate for automated jewelry processing. In fact, some of FRE’s best and longest term customers are regionally-based companies not unlike the ones that launched the company in the Black Hills of South Dakota many years ago.
Why Use Robots For Jewelry Polishing?
Benefits of Automation
The world has been automating all aspects of manufacturing for the better part of a century, but until fairly recently, the jewelry industry has lagged in its adoption of technology for production purposes. Much of the reason for this stance was the misperception that robots cannot perform ‘artisan’ type work as well as human hands. While nothing could be further from the truth, the fact remained that there simply were not commercial options readily available in the market. Fortunately, FRE has addressed both of those issues, and now jewelry operations of all sizes can reap the following benefits of automation.
Here are some of the benefits that lead directly to higher profitability for your business, and they are the same drivers for your automation return on investment!
- Increased production throughput per shift
- Consistent high quality and less scrap
- Better precious metal reclamation capability
- Improved safety by removing repetitive motion activities and separating people from potentially dangerous tools and metal dust
- Small footprint on the factory floor
- Optimized usage of consumables such as rouge and polishing wheels
- Easier tracking of production data and metrics
- Supports Lean Manufacturing and Industry 4.0 initiatives
- Encourages social distancing with a single operator able to oversee multiple systems
What Jewelry Processes Can Be Automated?
Jewelry is a Perfect Automation Fit
FRE was founded on its polishing technology, and while that is still the most popular application today, our systems can also address the following operations (listed loosely in typical order of operation). However, our customers’ needs are what drive our innovation and product development, and our patented technology is flexible enough to be applicable to many more applications. If you do not see yours listed, then send us a note. There is an excellent likelihood that we already have a system already designed, in the works, or easily adapted for your custom application.
- Polishing (pre-polish, main, and/or final buff)
- Machine tending (washers, engraver)
- Mold refurbishing
- Satin finishing
- Steam cleaning
- Vision based quality control
Typical Jewelry Processing Flow Charts
What Jewelry is Right for Automation?
Can FRE Process My Jewelry Designs?
In general, if one of your workers can manually polish your jewelry at their bench today, then there is an excellent chance that your products are a fit for FRE’s solutions.
Ring polishing is the most popular application for FRE’s systems, and the VDK-1200 family of products is still our most popular solution. However, just as our customers have pushed for new options in ring polishing, they have also asked for solutions for other jewelry types such as pendants, broaches, bracelets, earrings, and body piercings, and we have answered the call.
The VDK-2300 line, with its dual robots, offers the highest flexibility for other jewelry types. However, it is also common for our engineering team to design a custom system based upon FRE’s extremely flexible and patented software environment. As always, if you don’t find it here, then contact us, and we will be able to share with you our best options for your specific needs.
What Materials Are Compatible With FRE's Systems?
FRE became the ‘Gold Standard’ once our first system was installed in the Black Hills of South Dakota, but we also process silver, platinum, and several other metals and alloys. Again, FRE systems can typically do whatever your current workers do at their bench, but our systems simply do it more safely, more efficiently, more consistently and without bathroom breaks, illness absence, or vacations.
Our systems are also able to process jewelry that has stones or other ornamental features such as coatings, complex settings, engravings, baguettes, leaf settings etc. If your designs require that certain stones or features be avoided during polishing or final buff, for example, then our system will process it exactly the same way. Likewise, if that same process can be done with a varying technology requirement over the top of a stone or other feature, then again, that is exactly how the FRE system will perform the task (unless the system finds a more optimal routing for the robot!)
How FRE Systems Work
Ease of Use
All of FRE’s jewelry processing systems employ the same user-friendly, highly flexible, and powerful software interfaces. No programming or CNC-experience is necessary, and since each FRE solution is commissioned with full training included, any of your employees will be able to quickly grasp the operating commands. Furthermore, FRE’s patented mechanical and software technology is the basis of every one of our solutions, so you can be certain that future investments will not require a whole new technology learning curve for your team. Here is a video of a VDK-1200 ring polishing system processing simple gold bands.
So Simple That a Child Can Do It
With FRE’s user-friendly operating system and interface, it only takes minutes for your team to be up and running as the following VDK-1200 Ring Polishing System example shows. What’s even better is that each polishing ‘job’ of up to 120 rings can be accomplished with as little as five minutes of labor per tray, and that frees the majority of the operator’s time to do other important work in the cell.
Overview of Running a VDK-1200
1 - Choose a ring style from the database drop-down menu or define a new one. Once you define a new style, it is in your database for easy retrieval any time.
2 - Assign the polishing parameters based on your existing process via simple drop-down menus: (a) how often to apply rouge? (b) how far along the shank does the ring need to be polished? (c) is there a part of the ring not needing polish? (d) is optional lap polishing needed? etc. Also, the system will automatically detect the ring size.
3 - Place the ring on the 120-ring tray. These trays can be loaded with a single style or every ‘nest’ can have a different style. (Note: some metals cannot be processed on the same tray due to different polishing mediums such as rouge, etc.)
4 - Enter the ring’s tray-location into the machine’s memory with a click of the mouse. Multiples of the same ring style can be designated by highlighting multiple ‘nests’ on the screen.
5 - Close the VDK-1200’s doors, and start the system. The robotic arm will work through the entire tray of rings. After polishing, the rings can be set back on the tray or on a client’s wash rack, if the latter option is chosen.
6 - When all loaded rings are processed, then remove the finished tray (or wash rack).
7 - Refill consumables as needed.
8 - Repeat!
'Customs' Are Our Standard
Over 60% of FRE systems leave our factory docks with custom features, and almost all systems have customized user interface screens. We have a broad standard offering, but our clients are always coming up with new options and features that build upon these existing solutions.
Fortunately, FRE’s patented technology and modular designs allow our engineers tremendous flexibility. In fact, these same attributes have attracted clients from outside of the jewelry industry, in that our control algorithms, user interfaces, and innovative solutions are easily applied to almost any complex manufacturing system. Today, our company, with its focus well-rooted in the jewelry industry, is proud to have FRE systems installed in Automotive, Medical, Military, and Transportation, applications around the world. Similar to our esteemed jewelry customers, our ‘other’ industry customers are also a Who’s Who of the most recognized and reputable companies in the world.
So, as you visit our site today, please do not be put off if you do not see exactly your application. Just contact us, and there is an excellent chance that your request is not the first of its kind. However, if it is, then the FRE team stands ready to tackle our next opportunity. That is how we have operated from day one, and frankly, we do not know any other way. Bring us your toughest challenges, and let FRE bring your vision to reality!