A recent survey about robotics use among Automation World readers indicates that just under half of respondents (45%) report that their assembly and manufacturing facilities currently use robots as an integral part of their operations. More specifically, of those facilities using robots, 35% have adopted collaborative robots (cobots), while the remaining 65% use only industrial robots.
As widely adopted as robots have become over the past several years, there remains plenty of potential upside for robot investment. And that’s why it’s a good point in time to assess the value determination of investment in such technology.
“The calculation of total life-cycle cost of a piece of equipment, such as a robot, is an effective approach that takes into account not only the purchase price, but also potential production output and all other costs associated with maintaining that robot to arrive at its actual cost,” said Kevin Gavin of KUKA Robotics Corporation.
As part of this total cost of ownership (TCO) assessment, Gavin advises getting input from onsite production managers, maintenance managers, programmers, and any other personnel who will help determine specifics of the robotic application. Getting these varied insights is important in helping determine TCO based on capabilities of the robot.
Gavin and KUKA are highlighting the need for applying TCO to robot purchases, as they see many companies overlooking TCO and, instead, choosing robots based strictly on price.
“Less expensive robots may not provide the necessary capabilities in terms of throughput, payload, or reach, while higher quality ones will,” said Gavin. “But sacrificing core capabilities is a bad way to save money. Any type of robot that fails to meet all of a company’s needs will always end up costing more in the long run.”
Cobot or Robot
Much of the division between high and low-cost robots tends to fall along the collaborative/industrial robot line. Gavin advises that, while they’re considered a value in terms of price and ideal for certain applications, it’s important to realize that collaborative robots can only operate at speeds that will prevent injuries in the case of an accident. “For greater speed and throughput, industrial-type robots have fewer restrictions, though the highest-quality industrial-type robots include sensors that will trigger a slowdown when a human approaches the workspace,” he said. With these technologies, “the safety aspect remains, but it’s combined with higher payloads and longer reaches in addition to throughput.”
Gavin explained that finding the total cost of ownership for a robot goes beyond the collaborative versus industrial comparisons. “Industrial robots are built tough from heavy-duty castings and gears and, as completely sealed units, these robots are more robust by nature. In some industries, an industrial robot’s working life can span from 10 to 15 or more years—and many can be reprogrammed to support other processes as production needs change and new projects arise.”
The robustness of industrial robots typically means they will require less maintenance over their lifetimes and tend to be better able to recover from an accidental crash, according to Gavin. “This reduces repair costs and production losses by a significant amount, and because extended robot downtime causes total cost of ownership to rise dramatically, it’s an important factor to consider.”
As with any capital expenditure on automation technologies, ongoing support is a critical factor when considering the total cost of ownership. “Regardless of its initial purchase price and capabilities, a robot will not provide the highest utilization and lowest possible total cost of ownership if it lacks OEM service and support,” said Gavin. He explained that KUKA addresses this through the company’s my.KUKA digital customer portal. Here, KUKA robot users can view technical data, manage licenses, and access individual support for their particular robot applications.
Having access to these kinds of insights can be important in the buying decision due to many misconceptions about certain types of robots. As Gavin explained, “Many companies remain hesitant about industrial-type robots because of a common misconception that all robots use grease in their gearboxes, making maintenance more involved and time consuming. In fact, there are robotics OEMs, like KUKA, that rely on oil as opposed to grease. Oil extends the length of the intervals between robot maintenance, and when it does need to be changed, it’s a fast and easy operation—and one that users often perform themselves.”
Gavin added that application support from robotics OEMs is “equally critical because it allows the identification of potential problems at the early stages of a project. It ensures there are no unexpected additional costs and that the installation is done right the first time. Post-installation training from robotics OEMs also contributes to the prevention of mistakes or mishaps that could result in unexpected downtime and loss of production. This is especially important for a company’s first robot installation, as it allows them to significantly shorten the automation learning curve.”