Harsh Environments Require Rugged Automation

Click here to see a video of Comco's MicroBlasting and Precision Shot Peening Applications and Equipment in action.

Imagine trying to automate a process surrounded by a cloud of diamond-hard, micron-sized dust that permeates even the tiniest hole, nook, or cranny. Then imagine making that automation last a long time while still providing a repeatable process, accurate within microns. That was the challenge posed to Comco’s engineers over a decade ago.


A Natural Partnership

Comco’s specialty is MicroBlasting, also known as micro-abrasive blasting. MicroBasting is like sandblasting but utilizes micron-sized material to clean, texture, polish, etch, peen, and remove other material from a wide variety of devices, no matter how intricate. It is precise enough for hard-to-reach nooks and crannies and gentle enough for delicate, brittle, and ductile surfaces. Comco’s MicroBlasters project a blast of clean, dry air uniformly mixed with abrasive media that propels through a small nozzle designed to suit the application, the device, and/or the material.

    Medical device manufacturers use MicroBlasting in many capacities, including:

• Nickel-titanium (NiTiNol) devices such as stents, AAA stents, and heart valves for laser slag or dross removal, surface texturing, and weight reduction

• Bone screws to deburr or shot peen threading, to deburr the hex, and to texture the head of the screw and the swivel, creating a tighter grip

• Dental implants that require texturing for optimum osseointegration

• Pacemakers that require over-molding removal and surface texturing

• Orthodontic brackets that require deburring, material removal, edge-rounding, and texturing for bond adhesion

• Microfluidics for blood analyzers that need channels milled to permit quick and efficient fluid conveyance

And the list goes on.


Manufacturing Sparks Automation

Comco’s automation journey began 12 years ago with a manufacturer of NiTiNol devices. The customer wanted to process larger volumes of parts in a shorter period of time, but required more consistency and repeatability than manual processing provided. At that time, Comco only designed and manufactured manual equipment. Some of our customers requiring automation incorporated our blasters into automation systems they designed themselves, in-house. Unfortunately, these customers found out the hard way that when abrasive materials meet unprotected moving components, the entire system shuts down.

Our customers’ frustrating automation attempts could not be ignored. Were their trials and tribulations with automation our fault? We provided the means to deliver the media, but not a fully automated system. It worked perfectly well in manual applications, but this was something new. Standing at a crossroads, we realized that if we did not try to automate, our customers would not see MicroBlasting as a viable solution for production applications.

Comco’s 45-year history is built on the pride that we make quality equipment that withstands a variety of abrasive media for a long time. Automated machines have more moving parts. More moving parts create a multitude of failure points, and abrasive materials eat everything in their path.

Meeting the Challenge

First, we chose components that are less sensitive to the harsh environment, like lead screws with solid bushings instead of ball screws. Then, we encased all of the moving components in bellows with a positive air purge. We moved the controls and spindle to a separate chamber, sealed off from the abrasive environment. We mounted all of the most sensitive parts away from the dust by mounting these parts at the top of the cabinet, but the datum plate, spindle, and work-holding chuck remained close to the blast stream.

A vacuum that draws in abrasive dust held the work-holding chuck. We put O-ring seals on the chuck, and the vacuum was only actuated when the chuck clicked into place. An air-purge was created to keep dust from invading the lines or settling on the surface when the O-ring moved out of place.

The Long Haul

Over two years of development and constant refinement went into the design and development of the Advanced Lathe. It is now a solid working system for our customers across industries that need high-volume MicroBlasting. The key to its longevity lies in the layers of protection. Every precautionary step has a backup layer of protection. This insurance keeps the system running smoothly.

The customer who began this journey with us continues to work with us and has since purchased more units as its NiTiNol product lines have grown. More importantly, our engineers’ thorough understanding of automating MicroBlasting allows us to continue to adapt this technology to suit the unique and growing needs of the medical industry. 

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What's Contributors' Corner ?

Guest contributors submit their opinions and knowledge about the Medical Design space


Ruthann Browning

Ruthann Browning is a 28-year veteran of process equipment and automation. She currently handles Technical Sales in Automation in Comco’s western division and spearheads sales and marketing for...

Steve Schubert

Steve Schubert is VP, Business Development, for Advanced Machine & Engineering in Rockford, Ill. He has been with the company for more than 30 years.
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