Hamill Machine expands business thanks to WAMIC expertise

Hamill Machine’s newest product is a welded, light-weight aluminum rack that can be stacked to hold wine barrels. The company needed to transition from a manual to an automatic robotic welding process to keep up with order demand.

UPDATE June 24, 2020:
This past February, Hamill Machine Company finalized a project with R&I’s Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre (WAMIC) to develop an industrial fixture/jig for Hamill’s new robotic welding cell. The WAMIC research team used Computer Aided Design (CAD) in its engineering design ofhamh the pneumatic clamping system to hold the parts of the barrel rack while they’re automatically welded. Big things have happened for Hamill since then. They have hired eight new employees and acquired a new business: Heuser’s Welding and Machine. This, along with the launch of subsidiary Hamill APS (Agricultural Processing Solutions), the company has added a new moniker: Hamill Group of Companies 2020. The company is also currently implementing a systems/process from E2 Shop (productivity software for manufacturers).


In order to keep up with the increasing market demand for its wine barrel aluminum racks, local manufacturer Hamill Machine needed to fully automate its welding process.

Welding had been performed manually on the aluminum racks that can be stacked to hold wine barrels; however, they were not able to supply the racks quickly enough to meet market expansion.

“We reached the point where we could not physically keep up with production demands using manual methods,” says Hamill president Kevin Dobbs. “Practically, we could only fabricate so many barrel racks a day, so automation was the only next logical step.”

Having made the decision to switch to Robotic Gas Metal Arc Welding (GMAW), Hamill sought the expertise of the Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre (WAMIC) at Niagara College’s Research & Innovation division. Specifically, they needed a prototype for an industrial fixture/jig to pneumatically hold the parts of the barrel rack while they were automatically welded.

Founded in 1948, Niagara Falls-based Hamill Machine is a custom machine and fabricating shop offering full machining services, along with millwrighting for industrial maintenance and repair, for customers in the food, wine, heavy industrial, and environmental sectors. Advanced manufacturing technologies (3D engineering/printing) have been added, as well as a 7th-axis robotic water-jet cutter, making it the first in the area to house this technology. 

Hamill also brought a third partner on board as the robot provider and robotic cell integrator: I-Cubed Industry Innovators Inc., of Stoney Creek. I-Cubed provides industrial automation tools focusing on custom robotic machinery and waterjet equipment.

The challenge was to design a fixture that interfaces with both the robotic cell and the robot welder itself. The WAMIC research team had to design a solution that would accommodate both the technical requirements from an end-user perspective for Hamill, and also from a functional perspective.

“The robot now allows us the freedom to grow our barrel racking side of the business substantially.” 

~ Kevin Dobbs, president Hamill Machine

The main key design consideration, says Dobbs, is that the system be repeatable, since any minor variation, even 1/6 of an inch, would affect weld quality and could be catastrophic if the robot was to collide with the jig.

“Right from project inception, we needed to assure the robot could in fact reach all of the 64 weld points, so there were many reach analysis studies needed to be done to assure that the project could even work,” he says.

The functionality and size were both important parameters for his team to consider, explains Al Spence, PhD, research lead at WAMIC.

“It had to be made to have a smaller footprint because the welder couldn’t reach all the pieces, so we designed eight clamps on each side,” he says. “Because of the large sizes involved, and the cost of errors, the value of CAD cannot be underestimated.”

The fixture also needed to be lightweight and have maximum clearances for proper heat dissipation and robot accessibility. I-Cubed created a simulation of the robot path in order to prove the welder was going to reach all the necessary areas. Loading and unloading steps were made faster and easier for the machine operator.

The final fixture prototype is comprised of static locators and uses pneumatic clamping force to hold rack parts during the welding process, allowing for accurate and repeatable welds, which significantly improves quality of the welded parts.

left: Kevin Dobbs, president of Hamill Machine Co., with Al Spence, PhD, research lead with WAMIC, with the pneumatic clamping robotic weld fixture for Hamill’s wine barrel racking system.

The operator loads the aluminum stock into the fixture, clamps it using a pneumatic control valve, and the welding cycle begins, moving through its three positions and completing all 64 welds required for the process.

What’s more, the fixture allows for welding two side frames of the wine barrel rack, which doubles Hamill’s production speed while reducing direct labour costs.

WAMIC’s research team had also done some laboratory clamping force trials, including benchtop prototype testing, so Hamill could be assured that the pneumatic portion of the new jig would function as intended.

Tyler Winger, a WAMIC research assistant and NC electrical engineering technology student, was given the task of developing the electronics for the benchtop prototype, which was made to cycle test the clamping action.

“The electronics would actuate a pneumatic solenoid, which clamped the work piece in place and counted the number of times this process happened,” explains Winger. “As the only moving part in the assembly it was paramount that this would withstand the life of the final assembly.”

“I got the opportunity to learn about pneumatics, which are a common occurrence in industry.”
~ Tyler Winger, WAMIC research assistant

Winger adds that working on this project offered him a chance to expand his programming skills. “And I got the opportunity to learn about pneumatics, which are a common occurrence in industry.”

“Everything in regards to fitment and sizing was spot on, so everything fit and functioned quiet well right from the start,” says Dobbs.

After receiving the prototype from the WAMIC team, and the files needed to generate all the drawings and profiles, the fixture was then machined by Hamill, along with fabrication of all the components for the fixture, implemented in the robotic welding cell and is currently fully operational at Hamill facility.

“The jig has performed flawlessly since we started using it, so we are quite happy with the end result,” says Dobbs. “Working with the R&I team was nothing but professional and top notch. Right from the initial meetings to design concepts everything was handled in an organized and professional manner.”

Dobbs says he also appreciated the constant communication flow, especially during major design reiterations as Hamill changed the scope a few times to better suit their needs. “The team listened to all the requirements and changes and we were able to execute efficiently without much back and forth.”

And for Hamill, the robot and jig are opening new doors: “The robot now allows us the freedom to grow our barrel racking side of the business substantially,” adds Dobbs. “Having a template for our jig that we know works to our satisfaction will now allow us to use this same model for some of our other sizes of barrel racks moving forward.”

This project received funding through the Southern Ontario Network for Advanced Manufacturing Innovation (SONAMI), a Niagara College-led consortium of seven academic institutions and backed by the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev).

For more information about the applied research and technical services offered at R&I’s Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre, visit the website.