According to the International Federation of Robotics, robot sales have increased more than 45 percent in the last five years. More and more companies, across all industries, are looking to robotic solutions to increase manufacturing capacity, reduce costs, and improve worker safety. Today’s industrial robots are smarter, faster, adaptable, and collaborative. With advanced vision and sensing capabilities, robots can perform complex tasks that were not even possible a few years ago. All of these new technologies make this an exciting time to be considering an investment in an industrial robot.
As you evaluate which process in your manufacturing environment you want to target for a robotic application, be specific about the problem you want to solve and consider all of the cost reductions a robot can provide: minimizing waste, creating efficiencies, increasing production volume, improving safety or reducing labor costs. These cost reductions can serve as the basis for your return on investment criteria and will often be important factors in determining if a robot is right for your designated application.
Consider the following four steps as you evaluate your manufacturing floor for robotic potential:
Adaptive: Historically, robots performed repeatable tasks and were fenced off. Today, robots can work safely around humans in a collaborative work environment. Robots equipped with spatial awareness keep workers safe and provide an open, flexible work cell.
Intelligent: 3D vision systems can dramatically increase the capabilities of a robot. By combining such sensing abilities with the dexterity of a robot, complex tasks related to part handling can be performed. Following is a short list of part handling applications that are enhanced by vision robotics:
- Part/package inspection: A robotic platform enabled with vision capabilities can look for features that are present or absent, as well as gauge the size of features on a given package. Quality control can be automated by having a robot pick a randomly placed part, present it to the vision system, and determine a pass or fail.
- Part identification: With a mixed-feed application, the robot can identify, track, and sort the items based on preset criteria.
- Part location/orientation: Parts can be identified, picked, and handled for drilling, grinding, and painting applications using 2D or 3D vision systems. These capabilities enable automated bin picking.
In addition to vision, robotic work cells can also incorporate tactile feedback, force control, and infrared sensing.
Dangerous: Identify hazardous environments that pose risks to workers as areas for robotics use. For example, robots can tolerate heat and chemical environments much better than humans. A properly designed work cell will minimize exposure to dangers and increase worker safety.
Everywhere: Finally, consider all areas of your manufacturing floor as targets for robotic automation. Some areas may still be too complex and unrealistic, but with vision and end-effector technologies, a lot is possible.
Once you have selected the application and defined a budget, it is time to select an industrial robot and design the work cell. At this time, it is often beneficial to work with a systems integrator who can leverage product knowledge and past project experience. Integrators will help select the robot and often design and provide the end-effector necessary to perform the task. A robotic integrator can provide 3D simulations and time studies, often incorporating SolidWorks models, to demonstrate how the robot will travel and function in the work cell. This allows adjustments to be made early in the process, ensuring robots are sized correctly for payload, speed and reach. This will save both time and money.
Now is a great time to be considering an investment in robotic automation. Combining industrial robots with new vision and safety technologies are enabling advanced functionality and creating attractive returns on investment. To stay abreast of trends in the robotics industry and to find a system integrator with robotics expertise, visit the Robotic Industries Association website.
Michael Gurney is CEO of Concept Systems Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association. See Concept Systems’ profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.