Robotiq Whips Partners and Users into Shape with Lean Robotics Boot Camp
Isaac Maw posted on September 05, 2018 |
It’s time for the second Robotiq User Conference (RUC), hosted in old Quebec City, Canada. Building on the success of last year’s event, RUC 2018 is a chance for the company’s users and integrator partners to sharpen their hands-on skills, get acquainted with the latest technology and brush up on Robotiq’s guiding philosophy: lean robotics.

Lean Robotics Methodology

Robotiq, the end effector and robot accessory company, focuses on one thing: making automation simpler. The CEO, Samuel Bouchard, literally wrote the book on the Lean Robotics methodology, which is a way of bringing the value-focus of lean manufacturing to bear on how robotic cells are designed, integrated and operated.

“The lean robotics methodology is really a framework for customers to understand where they are,” said Bouchard. “It really helps our application engineers. First, they try to understand where they are in the process. Then, they can avoid common pitfalls. One of the most common pitfalls with automation is coming to a solution without fully identifying the problem. So, the first question is, what are you automating and why?”

The highlight of the RUC is the hands-on challenge. This year’s challenge is designed to show the power of lean robotics in practice, with as many as fifty Universal Robots e-Series robots, Robotiq adaptive grippers, wrist cameras and software at participants’ disposal.

Universal Robots e-Series

While their products are robot-agnostic, Robotiq has always worked closely with collaborative robot manufacturer Universal Robots. This year’s big news from Universal Robots is the release of the e-Series, a new line of robots which, in addition to several other minor improvements, features a six-axis force/torque sensor at the wrist. (For a full analysis of the improvements, check out my article comparing the spec sheets of the e-Series and the 3rd-generation Universal Robots.)

“The release of the e-Series is an important event for the end user, and for our partners, so we are taking a pause to make sure everyone understands the impact of it,” said Bouchard.

I asked Bouchard if the e-Series new force sensor makes third-party force/torque sensors, like Robotiq’s FT300, redundant when working with this line of robots. “Yes, it does,” he said. “But, what do you do with the sensor data?  All the software we provide with the FT300, we will sell as a package only for the e-Series. The new robots may remove part of our hardware market, but this opens the market for our new Force Copilot software, which is announced at the RUC 2018.”

Unlocking Force-Sensitive Applications With Force Copilot

The most exclusive piece of news to be announced at the RUC is the introduction of Force Copilot, an intuitive software to operate Universal Robots e-Series’ embedded force torque sensor. According to the company, Force Copilot accelerates the programming of part insertion and surface finding, among many other applications.

Force Copilot’s sensing functions increase flexibility and robustness in machine tending, assembly, finishing and pick & place applications. The user will benefit from a variety of setup tools to hand-guide the robot and have it follow complex trajectories. The software lets the user place objects precisely in jigs, trays and chucks, and facilitates assembly applications through alignment, indexing and insertion functions. The Force Copilot also unlocks finishing applications: its interface allows users to set adaptive compliance and constant force in all robot axes. 

“We want to free every production line operator in the world from repetitive manual tasks. With Force Copilot, we are making complex robot movement programming accessible to anyone,” says Robotiq CEO Samuel Bouchard. “Force Copilot works as the human operator's guide, helping them program the robot quickly and easily. We’re proud to see the next step of the human + robot collaboration take shape.”

Universal Robots Keynote Addresses

Also in attendance at the RUC is Esben Østergaard, CTO and co-founder of Universal Robots and recent recipient of the prestigious Engelberger award. Østergaard is delivering a keynote address on day 1 of the event, along with Mark Kahwati, the product manager for the e-Series, who is delivering a separate keynote on the same day. Universal Robots is a main sponsor of the RUC, and one of their main contributions is the dozens of new robots that will be used in the technical challenge.

Understanding the capabilities of the e-Series robots will be essential for participants who aim to win the grueling 24-hour technical challenge. The criteria for victory is simple: be the team to produce the most parts from an automated assembly line you design, program and deploy.

The RUC 2018 24 Hour Technical Challenge

Pulling an all-nighter trying to get your robots to work isn’t just for Elon Musk anymore!

This year’s challenge mirrors a typical scenario a production manager or robotics system integrator encounters daily. Robotiq has set up a mockup factory, in which six stations are performed manually by human workers. Each station is a good candidate for automation. The challenge is to study the manual workers, design six robotic cells to perform their tasks, integrate the cells to work together efficiently, and get the line up and running to begin cranking out finished parts—all in one day. Don’t worry: coffee is provided.

The challenge is designed to guide participants through the lean robotics methodology. According to Samuel Bouchard’s book on the subject, Lean Robotics: A Guide to Making Robots Work in Your Factory, “In lean robotics, the main focus is always on serving the internal customer, and it’s defined as whatever station comes after the robotic cell in the production sequence.”

Just as lean manufacturing is all about defining and refining the process by which value is delivered to the end customer, lean robotics treats the robotic cell as a microcosm of that idea, with the robot’s implementation focused on delivering the most value to the subsequent process step, as efficiently as possible.

Lean Robotics Phase 1: Design

According to Lean Robotics, the first step in the design phase of any automation project is to find the answer to this question: “What is the value that the robot should be creating for the next station on the factory floor?”

In the technical challenge, teams will need to speak with the manual workers at each of the six stations to find this answer. This is a critical step in the process and should not be underestimated by some potentially communication-averse engineers. Accurately defining the goal output of the cell is the foundation for the entire project.

The design phase is all about mapping out exactly what the manual task does, and what it should output. Next, that manual task is translated into a robotic task and finalized.

Tip: Don’t Ignore the Process Advisor

In applications like welding, it’s obvious that the welding expert is essential—robot programmers typically don’t know much about welding. However, it can be easy to overlook the process advisor at a station like kitting or assembly, where the task seems straightforward.

Your manual worker is a great asset. As Bouchard advises in the book, “Casual statements like, ‘By the way, once in a while I have to hammer this corner to get the jig in’ or ‘oh yeah, sometimes I manually remove this extra burr so I can assemble the two parts’ might seem insignificant, but if the robotic cell isn’t set up to do these tasks, the whole project could fail.”

In the RUC 2018 technical challenge, that could mean you miss out on some bragging rights. In your factory or with a customer, it can mean much bigger problems.

Phase 2: Integrate

With the design for the cell finalized, you’re ready to assemble the equipment, write the code, and build the system which will form your robotic cell.

One difference between the RUC challenge and the real world is that in the real world, your robotic cell is most likely being installed on a production line which is already up and running. This brings a lot of pressure for the integrators to prepare, install, and get the cell up and running as quickly and smoothly as possible. In the challenge, this burden is somewhat lifted, as participants will be building their five-station line from the beginning, rather than improving on some existing setup.

This simplifies the task to some degree; however, it won’t change the goal of the integrate phase: get your design from the whiteboard to the factory floor, including all the preparation, installation and training your design requires.

Tip: Backups and Revision Control

In all likelihood, the code written by highly caffeinated engineers at 2:00 AM will differ from the code written for most professional applications, but it’s still important to practice good data habits. Back up your files regularly in a safe place. Organize different versions of the same program as they are developed. When you hit a bug, you can simply reload a past version and identify the changes which caused the bug. In addition, take the extra three seconds and come up with a variable name which is descriptive and transparent. The variable should be clear to everyone who will access the code in the future.

Phase 3: Operate

When the integrate phase is finished, hitting ‘run’ on the HMI pendant should cause finished parts to begin to roll out of the robotic cell. With the short timeline of the challenge, there isn’t much time for anything but minor tweaks and adjustments during this phase. However, in the real world, the operate phase begins an ongoing cycle of monitoring, maintenance, continuous improvement and possibly troubleshooting to minimize downtime. This could involve in-house robot programmers and technicians, but in the case of Robotiq’s partners and system integrators, it involves training and support for the operators and other supporting personnel.

Tip: Robotiq Announcing Remote Support Service

One commonly cited reason for deploying robots is the difficulty in finding workers. However, this sometimes presents manufacturers with a catch-22: if qualified workers can’t be found for manual tasks, what are the chances of finding a good robot programmer?

To address this need, Robotiq is launching a remote support service available on its Insights monitoring software, which will allow Robotiq users to call and get help with troubleshooting, installation and programming. The support will be able to access the robot HMI and solve problems, as well as talking users through troubleshooting steps. This service may help factories use robotics without the in-house robotics expertise that was once needed.

RUC 2018: An Opportunity to Become a Lean Robotics Expert

Hosted in his hometown of Quebec City, Samuel Bouchard hopes the event will be a fun and engaging learning opportunity for the invited users and partners of Robotiq. “The goal is to inform and motivate,” he said. “The real prize is learning.”

In addition to the technical challenge, the RUC features several speakers, social events and workshops, including a separate challenge for sales professionals.

The RUC wraps up only a few days before IMTS.

Follow the RUC 2018 on the Robotiq blog here.

Robotiq has sponsored this article.  All opinions are mine.  --Isaac Maw

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