What Can 80 Engineers Do with 40 Robots in 24 Hours?

Robotiq User Conference challenges engineers to use lean robotics in 24-hour competition.

(Image courtesy of Robotiq.)

(Image courtesy of Robotiq.)

If there’s one thing engineers love, it’s a challenge.

Put a hundred engineers together in a room, give them an impossible task, like making a square peg fit into a round hole, and they’ll find a solution.

Of course, there’s a big difference between a challenge with a narrow scope—such as replacing the lithium hydroxide canister on the Apollo 13 command module—and one that’s much broader, like integrating automation in manufacturing.

However, sometimes the best way to address big challenges is to start with smaller ones. We may not be able to resolve all the challenges of automation in manufacturing in one day, but you might be surprised by what engineers can do in just 24 hours.

The inaugural Robotiq User Conference (RUC) will demonstrate what 80 engineers can do with 40 robots in 24 hours. The workshop challenge pits teams of automation engineers from around the world against one another, with the goal of producing as many parts as possible in that timeframe.


The RUC Workshop Challenge

“Everyone is going to be given information about a manual task via Blueprints,” explained Samuel Bouchard, co-founder and CEO of Robotiq. “It’s a service to help manufacturers design robotic cells. “When an end-user wants to automate something, the first thing they need to do is map the manual process. In this case, we’ve done that already, so we’ll provide the teams with that information.”

(Image courtesy of Robotiq.)

(Image courtesy of Robotiq.)

Each team will then have to determine the best way to automate that manual task using five robots, two conveyors and all the necessary ancillary equipment. Once they’ve formed a game plan, the teams will divide up the necessary programming work, with two people per robot.

Once it’s time to integrate, Robotiq’s Skills provides downloadable and ready-to-use robotic applications, allowing users to take full advantage of Plug + Play components and smart sensors.


Finally, with the robotic cell in operation, manufacturing engineers and production managers can use Robotiq’s Insights to monitor its performance. Insights is notable as the first instance of an on-demand service providing real-time data with a focus solely on robotics operations.

“The winning team will be the one that produces the most parts in 24 hours,” said Bouchard. “We expect that there will be a lot of different approaches—some people will rush to start producing parts as fast as possible, but their robots might not be as efficient; others might take longer to get started, but their robots will work faster.”

What can the winners expect as a reward for their victory? Arguably the greatest prize of all: knowledge. Well, that and bragging rights. “There’s going to be the fame,” Bouchard joked, “but really, it’s a learning experience. That’s the goal.”


How Can We Deploy More Robots, Faster?

Although the workshop challenge is the centerpiece of the conference, there’s much more to RUC than that. Yesterday, Bouchard gave a plenary talk, along with Michelle Drew Rodriguez, manufacturing leader from the Deloitte Center for Industry Insights and Universal Robots (UR) CTO, Esben Østergaard.

The theme of this year’s conference is: “How can we deploy more robots, faster?”

(Image courtesy of Robotiq.)

(Image courtesy of Robotiq.)

Robotiq’s answer to this question is a new methodology called Lean Robotics, detailed in a book written by Bouchard, who holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and a bachelor in Engineering Physics from Laval University.

“The people working in a factory are the ones who best know how to automate their processes,” said Bouchard. “But until now, it’s been hard for them to find all the necessary information in one place. This book is the complete guide to achieving a successful robotic cell deployment.”

Like lean manufacturing, lean robotics focuses on continuous improvement and eliminating waste across the whole development cycle; in this case, with a specific focus on the output of robotic cells.

The methodology will help manufacturers learn to design, integrate and operate robotic cells as efficiently as possible. Step-by-step guidelines detail how to deploy robots across an enterprise while taking the idiosyncrasies of individual facilities into account.


Putting People Before Robots

“The first principle of the lean robotics methodology is, ‘Put people before robots,’ which refers not just to safety, but also to seeing these technologies as tools for everybody, rather than something to replace them,” explained Bouchard.

(Image courtesy of Robotiq.)

(Image courtesy of Robotiq.)

This addresses the most common concern about automation amongst the general public; namely, that the widespread deployment of robotics and automation will entail widespread unemployment. However, manufacturers are facing a different problem, one Bouchard believes robotics can resolve.

“There are millions of unfilled jobs in North America because people either can’t or won’t do those jobs,” he said. “So, we’re going to need robots one way or another, but let’s do it the right way so that we don’t put people out of work, but instead change the work they need to do. The idea behind the people-before-robots principle is to bring about an inclusive transformation of the workforce.”

But if robotics promise a technological solution to the manufacturing skills gap, why aren’t more manufacturers adopting them? In other words, to return to the theme of RUC: How can we deploy more robots, faster?

“The two main reasons people don’t deploy more robots are cost and complexity,” explained Bouchard, and these problems are interrelated. “A company might say, ‘This is too complicated, so let’s go with an external integrator,’ but then they realize that’s too expensive. If they say, ‘Let’s do this ourselves,’ they may realize that it’s too complicated.

(Image courtesy of Robotiq.)

(Image courtesy of Robotiq.)

Those are the main reasons holding a lot of people back from using robots. Of those two, we want to tackle complexity, because we think this is the root cause. If you have something that’s less complex, the projects are cheaper and companies can prove the ROI. I also think that’s UR’s big advantage: the main reason people buy them is because they’re easier to work with and program.”

This relates to Bouchard’s point about transforming the manufacturing workforce in an inclusive way: robots that are less complex have less of a learning curve, allowing novices the chance to develop their skills and build the confidence they need to work with automation, rather than resist it.

(Image courtesy of Robotiq.)

(Image courtesy of Robotiq.)

“If we look at the numbers, the collaborative robot market is growing faster than the traditional one, and it has been for some time,” said Bouchard. “They will catch up, but being collaborative could be a feature on any robot. It makes so much sense to have robots that can be aware of the people around them. That’s why all the major robot vendors are augmenting their product lines with extra sensors and controls, so any robot could become collaborative. It’s a new feature right now, but in time it could become the norm.”

Stay tuned for more on the Robotiq User Conference or visit the Robotiq blog.

Robotiq has sponsored this post. All opinions are mine. –Ian Wright