If there’s an unsung hero of manufacturing, it’s the engineer who figures out how to handle huge numbers of small parts. It’s one thing to manually assemble something, picking each nut, bolt, and washer by hand. It’s another thing to build a machine that can do the same thing, but thousands of times in a row, ideally without making mistakes.
Most of us don’t need that level of automation in our processes, but when you do, it results in some interesting challenges. Take this pneumatic screw accelerator that [Christopher Helmke] designed for his modular production system. One of the custom machines in his system is a screw counter, which uses a magnetic wheel to feed screws — or nuts or washers — from a hopper, orient them correctly, and drop them into an output chute. While the counting bit worked quite well, parts would only go so far under the force of gravity in the clear vinyl tube used to connect the counter to the next process.
[Christopher]’s solution was simple but effective. His first prototype simply injects compressed air into the parts feed tube, which pushes the screws through the tubing. It works surprisingly well, propelling the parts through quite a long length of tubing, handling twisting paths easily and even working against gravity. Version 2 integrated the accelerator and a re-orienting fixture into a single part, which mates with a magazine that holds a large number of screws.
There are a lot of interesting features [Christoper] built into these simple parts that are worth keeping in mind. Our favorite is printing channels to guide small cable ties around the tubing to clamp it into the accelerator. We’ll be keeping that trick in mind.