Fear. It’s a common reaction for small- and medium-sized firms who must automate with industrial robotics in order to stay competitive.
Vickers Engineering, a Troy, Michigan-based automotive Tier 1, is a case-in-point.
The precision machining company and contract manufacturer, is a supplier to Toyota, GM, Honda and other OEM customers.
To meet the needs of its customers, the company’s choice of automating with industrial robots was a do-or-die decision. Staff first reacted fearfully to the idea of automating with robots, as many in the industry believe robotic automation leads to staff layoffs.
“The initial thought was we were all going to lose our jobs,” said Jordan Klint, engineering manager at Vickers. “But we were able to add robotics and not have a reduction in headcount because of how we’re structured. Some positions don’t exist anymore, but the people are still here in new roles.”
Vickers currently runs less than four bad parts per million. Matt Tyler, president of Vickers, credits automation for eliminating variables that could have led to failures or inefficiencies in the production process.
“We were first asking ourselves ‘why would we automate that,’ but then it really flipped and we started asking ‘why wouldn’t we automate that?’” Tyler commented. “We want to automate as many cells as we can because we are targeting higher volume work.”
How are Industrial Robots Cost Effective?
Industrial robots are expensive and their effectiveness is application-specific. One robot can cost between US$25,000-700,000, depending on the application and whether it is bought new or used. This doesn’t include maintenance or integration costs.
Up-front, this is a steep price when compared to offshoring—which is popular for its use of inexpensive human labor overseas.
For a manufacturer looking to cover a lot of ground quickly in a market, offshoring seems like a smart plan. However, it is not a miracle solution.
Manufacturers are subject to transportation costs, delays and product losses. For example, if a ship were to lose a container at sea, the manufacturer would lose both product and money.
Additionally, quality problems due to use of cheap materials and corner-cutting can be common when offshoring.
Industrial robots attain their cost effectiveness through the advantages they provide over human labor (even the cheap kind).
“When we originally automated, we had a cell that required three people to transfer the product within the cell and it had an extreme fatigue factor,” Tyler explained. “Automation was clearly the most effective way to solve the issue. We went from three people in a cell down to one and it solved a myriad of problems.”
Industrial robots never need to rest, never lose focus and rarely make mistakes—if maintained correctly.
“Often, robotic solutions can run 24 hours a day and seven days a week without special supervision or maintenance,” said Mick Estes, General Manager, FANUC America Corporation. “Over time, this will offset the initial cost in investment into a robotic solution for manufacturing processes.”
Additionally, manufacturers can reduce costs by keeping close to their consumer base. With no need to offshore, it becomes significantly easier to transport materials, parts and products between suppliers, manufacturers and customers.
Greater volume can be produced with increased speed and manufacturers can more quickly respond to customer demand.
With adaptable programming, manufacturers can multipurpose their robots for changing applications.
“Judicious application of automation and robotics can reduce manufacturing costs and increase efficiency,” said Gary Mintchell, founder and CEO of The Manufacturing Connection. “Manufacturers can also respond more easily to changing customer demand, making it more attractive to produce closer to the customer.”
However, manufacturers looking to automate must keep a “buyer beware” attitude and plan ahead. Mintchell advises cautious assessments of which processes to automate for greatest financial return.
“Robots are not inexpensive, so calculations must be done on the payback of making an investment in the equipment,” advised Mintchell. “Go into it with your eyes open, not just in reactive mode. I was taught in my first computer application in 1977 to get the manual system optimized first and then apply automation as needed. It’s 40 years later and the advice still holds true.”
Save Labor with High Precision and Repeatability using Industrial Robots
Industrial robots could be installed in a plant to automate almost anything. Some of the most common applications include:
- High precision
- Arc and Spot Welding
- Material Removal (cutting, grinding, deburring, drilling, etc.)
- Pick and Place
- Machine Tool Loading/Unloading
- Part Transfer
- Inspection and Measurement
Industrial robots in these roles effectively remove humans from dangerous or exhausting tasks involving, heavy lifting, extreme levels of concentration, and environments contaminated with solvents, noise, heat and dust.
Many of these scenarios are automated today with non-robotic solutions like CNC machines and other hard automation devices.
These solutions are effective in their applications but are not capable of achieving the flexibility of reprogrammable industrial robots.
“If you look at manufacturing tasks today, 90 percent of them can’t get done with what people have thought of as a traditional piece of automation,” said Jim Lawton, chief product and marketing officer at Rethink Robotics.
With a greater degree of flexibility, human workers can be utilized for more complex, skill-oriented tasks.
“The bottom line of automation is to be more productive,” said Olivier Grenier-Lafond, sales and marketing coordinator at Robotiq. “For example, our products are generally used on collaborative robots in 'high-mix' manufacturing. This is where people make many different products or change their production regularly. The most common application we see is with manufacturers who automate their machine tending applications.”
Industrial robots can be found in use within industries including automotive, aerospace, food and beverage and more. With so many customers to serve, there are many industrial robot providers to choose from for each application.
Many of Vickers’ fleet of robots are provided by FANUC, which supplies manufacturers with models like the R-2000iC/210F.
FANUC's R-2000iC/210F (image courtesy FANUC.)
FANUC’s R-2000iC/210F is an example of the conventional guarded robotic automation solution. These machines are programmed to perform specific motions within a work cell or on a major assembly line.
With their great size comes great strength. Guarded robots are capable of handling very high payloads. The R-2000iC/210F is capable of manipulating a payload of 210kg at the wrist, with six axes along a reach of 2655mm.
Typically, these robots often have between two and seven axes in the arm. The more axes the arm has, the more complex movements the robot is capable of.
Work cells usually isolate the robot from human workers on the factory floor for safety reasons. As the robot isn’t aware of its surroundings, there is a risk of serious injury to humans who might unwittingly get in the way of its movement.
Sensor technology connected between a robot and its surrounding fence can be installed for safety measures. Sensors could deactivate the robot if a human were to open and enter the guarded area.
Collaborative Robots Work Alongside Humans
The need for safety when working with industrial robots led to the creation of collaborative robots, or cobots for short.
Cobots often come in smaller sizes compared to their guarded counterparts and offer smart sensor technology so they can work more closely with humans without requiring a large amount of valuable floor space for fenced work cells.
Baxter is one of the more famous examples of what cobots are and what they can do.
Rethink Robotics' Baxter. (Image courtesy Rethink Robotics.)
“Today most people refer to Baxter as a collaborative robot that addresses things that are software-driven, which allows it to be much more general purpose,” said Lawton. “It doesn’t have to be in a cage. You don’t have to spend 200 hours to program it. A regular robot would have to have the environment around it designed to accommodate the robot, rather than the robot being accommodated for the environment.”
Cobots are “force-limited” in that they use sensor technology to analyze distance from external objects and forces of impact between them. For example, if the robot were to bump into a human worker, sensors in the device would register a force overload from the impact and bring the robot to standstill.
Rethink Robotics developed Baxter and his one-armed counterpart Sawyer as some of the first collaborative robots available on the market.
“Baxter can work in the environment you already have and he’s designed so he doesn’t have to be programmed,” Lawton explained. “When you want to get the robot to do something, you show it how to do it. You grab his arm, which immediately engages in a mode that makes it appear weightless. We call it the zero-G mode.”
In zero-G mode, Baxter’s limbs allow an operator to easily demonstrate a motion for Baxter to memorize.
“It allows you to show the robot how to do tasks and the robot remembers it, optimizes it and then performs that task over and over again more efficiently than a person could do,” Lawton continued. “It could be done without ever touching a computer.”
Steelcase, Inc., a producer of steel products like architectural walls and office furniture, employs a number of Baxter and Sawyer units today.
“We are implementing Sawyer in areas where it performs a highly repetitive task to help free up our operators to do more important functions in their work cells,” said Walter Adams, manufacturing engineer at Steelcase.
Currently, Sawyer units at Steelcase are being used for pick and place applications—picking and loading steel plates and tubes and placing them in a fixture.
“What we want to do is use this equipment on an off shift, so we can utilize more operators to do different things depending on the schedule we’re trying to run,” added George Helms, manufacturing robotics leader at Steelcase.
Automation Providers and Integrators Can Help You Get Started
The first step to automating a process is knowing who you can turn to for solutions.
Automation goes beyond industrial robotics, so it’s important to distinguish your application and its needs.
Do the research on automation providers that you know. Lists like the Top 21 Companies in the Industrial Robotics Market by Technavio detail some of the more well known automation providers.
Unbiased sources of information on these companies can be found on industry news sites, market reports and among peers.
When you’ve got a general idea of which company you may want to work with, it’s time to approach them.
Many automation providers like FANUC, Rethink Robotics and Robotiq offer training programs to help customers and their employees really understand what it is that they’re investing in.
Manufacturers who feel overwhelmed or need a second opinion on automating their processes can turn to an integrator for assistance. Automation Integrators Inc. is one such company.
“We are and do what our name implies,” said Doug Bentley, owner of Automation Integrators. “We cover all market segments and can supply our customers with new solutions, upgrade and repurpose existing equipment or provide maintenance and service support.”
Good integrators abide by codes of safety outlined by the International Standardization Organization (ISO) for conventional industrial robots and even their collaborative counterparts.
“With collaborative robots, there is a certain low-level risk for injury when a robot is in the same environment as a worker,” Grenier-Lafond said. “This level is set by different parameters related to the severity and the occurrence probability of injury. That said, a risk assessment must be done to analyze the robot, its tool and the environment where it’s working.”
Just recently, ISO published a technical specifications and risk assessment document, ISO/TS 15066, clarifying safety requirements for integrators installing cobots.
“The ISO standard identifies a couple of potential dangers that might occur when working with a conventional robot,” Grenier-Lafond explained. “Crushing or stabbing accidents are the most dangerous in my opinion. Protective measures are put in place to avoid these kinds of accidents, which are very rare.”
Bentley’s team at Automation Integrators is comprised of engineers with a collective experience of over 100 years in manufacturing and automation.
“Take time in finding an integrator that knows automation,” Bentley continued. “Don’t just go to a robot dealer, as their main objective is to sell robots and this is not always the best solution to a company’s automation needs.”
Bentley advises that the first thing manufacturers should do with any integrator is set up a meeting to establish their needs and objectives.
“We look at the customer’s current process and cost reduction requirements before we do anything,” Bentley added. “From there, we can formulate a proposal of where automation fits best, based on what processes are value-added versus non-value-added, which add cost to their product.”
Bentley explains it is important for manufacturers looking to automate to have a clear idea of their budget, constraints and available time to integrate. Contingency planning is also necessary.
It’s important to be aware that when purchasing equipment from a company that uses proprietary hardware or software, the customer could be locked into standardizing.
A completely standardized automation setup has its advantages in machine communication and that operators need only learn a single system and programming language. However, companies with a diversity of applications may struggle to meet all of their needs with a single automation provider.
Working with an external integrator could simplify working with and connecting multiple brands of automation.
“Consumers should also be aware that no amount of automation will bring 100 percent efficiency to their process,” Bentley warns. “They must factor in the true cost of implementing automation as it is not just a one-time purchase.”
Automated solutions, both robotic and otherwise, require scheduled maintenance and extra end effectors for robotic arms.
There are also the costs of downtime and training that must be considered when first automating.
A dedicated manufacturer however can adapt to these challenges and ultimately master the technology. Vickers has garnered enough experience with its automation solutions that maintenance and training for industrial robots can be done in-house.
“It takes time, but now we’re at a point where we don’t use an integrator anymore—we have all the resources in house,” Klint said. “Whenever we quote new work, it’s automatically going to be robotically handled and we would have to justify why not to automate.”
Small and medium enterprises like Vickers have been able to utilize automation with industrial robots to great success. Klint and Tyler encourage other SMEs to take the plunge into automation.
“Automation isn’t all things to all people, but if you can sense you can do more with it, do it,” Tyler said.
Klint offers other manufacturers some advice and a challenge.
“Don’t take your biggest, most complex thing where you’re always tight on ship dates,” Klint advises. “Focus on something that’ll be pretty consistent that you’ll knock out of the park before looking to more difficult challenges. However, whether you get to robotic automation or not, you need to do something to stay competitive or else I’m going to take all your work.”
For more information about integrating industrial robots and other automation solutions with, please continue reading with us about What You Need to Know about Integrating Industrial Automation.
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