If you’re of a certain age, you likely played with an Erector set as a kid. Today, in the world of automation, there’s a new kind of Erector set mentality setting in, according to Charlie Duncheon, executive vice president at robot vendor Adept Technology Inc., in Livermore, Calif.
For end users and systems integrators who have traditionally relied upon hard, or fixed, automation technology, the trend toward shorter product life cycles is driving the need to find more flexible solutions. One approach for more flexibility, of course, is robotics. But for some hard automation veterans, as Duncheon points out, “robot technology has always been a little more expensive, and in some cases, harder to use.”
As a result, Duncheon says he’s seeing a trend toward what he calls “Erector-set flexibility with linear modules.” By that, he means that more users are deploying servo-driven linear modules—supplied by Adept and other vendors—to build up multiple-axes systems that are cost-effective replacements for previous hard automation approaches.
Instead of using a pneumatic cylinder, for example, which supplies motion between two fixed positions, “you can get the same form factor in a linear module at a price tag that’s not much different,” Duncheon contends. These linear modules are much more flexible, they can be reprogrammed offline and programs can be downloaded, eliminating the need to adjust pneumatic cylinder stops for product changeovers, Duncheon says. Depending on performance requirements, axis length and other variables, industry-wide linear module pricing ranges typically from around $3,000 to $8,000 per axis, he adds.
It’s a robot
“Some integrators who have traditionally done hard automation are actually putting together—by the industry definition—their own robot,” Duncheon points out. “They’re using three or four programmable axes on a device that used to be three or four pneumatic axes, or maybe some kind of a cam set-up,” he says. “So I think that’s a trend that’s been more of an evolution than a revolution in terms of getting a whole new robot form factor into traditional hard automation environments.”
Some integrators confirm the trend. “We sometimes buy linear modules when we’ve got a simple task that only requires two or three axes of motion and we need the flexibility that an air cylinder or a cam couldn’t provide,” says Ron Potter, director of robotics technology at Factory Automation Systems Inc., an Atlanta-based system integrator.
Ditto at RTS Wright Industries LLC, a Nashville, Tenn., system integrator. “Linear modules have become more and more prevalent over the past few years, because they seem to have gotten less expensive, and they’ve gotten easier to use,” says Andy Carson, RTS Wright director, and business group manager for electronics assembly. And the trend may be gathering momentum. “Because manufacturing engineers see these linear modules more frequently out in the manufacturing world, there’s more confidence in them, so it’s been sort of a snowball effect,” Carson adds.