Many demands drive today’s industrial operations. The push to increase productivity and provide more flexibility is coupled with continuing efforts to improve efficiency, reduce costs and improve quality. Robots can help operational planners meet all these goals.
These versatile machines are becoming easier to use, allowing them to meet rapidly-changing production requirements. This capability for easy integration is important as companies strive to become more flexible, producing a number of product types and variants instead of simply turning out high volumes of identical parts.
To date, robots chiefly have been used to reduce costs by performing highly repeatable actions at high speeds. Though a single robot can be configured to perform many different tasks, many systems are used only for a single task. Such limited use has prompted the misperception that robots are inflexible and relegated to performing one process or task. That’s definitely not the case; Robots can adapt to process changes and tasks, allowing for faster production changeover while often improving quality
“Robotic platforms are by nature flexible,” says Alex Bonaire, product manager at Mitsubishi Electric Automation. “Most industries are becoming more competitive, with shorter life cycles that force companies to get to market quicker. There’s also demand for more customization, so more people are looking to do more with robots.”
3 Trends Prompting a New Look at Robots
Where organizations may not have thought of utilizing robots in the past, several manufacturing trends have prompted manufacturers to reconsider their views.
A changing programming landscape. It’s becoming easier to integrate robots into existing facilities. They’re now far easier to program, so equipment can be commissioned in less time. Simplified programming continues to bring benefits throughout operational lifetimes. Robots can be set up for multiple tasks or operations allowing them to automatically change with the products, or moved to a completely different system without the need to change or edit the program..
“The limitations of robots are mainly what users can think of,” Bonaire says.
Commissioning has become simpler as simulations and 3D capabilities have improved. An entire production line, including robots, can now be simulated in 3D. Such capabilities make it easier to design production lines to meet changing production requirements. Robots connected with a vision system are able to determine what part they are working with and adjust operation accordingly, removing the need for costly, specific part presentation hardware. The programming tools for robots themselves have also improved, with more intuitive drag and drop tools, and networking capabilities allow for easier connectivity to multiple hardware platforms.
Tooling capabilities. Beyond programming, end of arm tooling is the other important aspect of a robot’s operating functions. These end effectors include painting heads, welding torches, and grippers and drills, to name just a few options. The ability to automatically change end of arm tools is a simple task. Similar to CNC tool changing, today’s robots can utilize automatic tool changes, which provides considerable flexibility for companies that want to use robots for diverse tasks.
This adaptability provides major benefits over conventional production equipment. When conventional production lines are established, equipment is often useless when the product reaches its end of life. With robots, you simply adapt the tooling to the new product and modify the program if necessary. With proper maintenance, a robot can continue to provide a return on investment far longer than the initial product lifecycle.
Another benefit of a robot’s adaptability is the ability to be utilized as a flexible labor source. The manufacturing industry is facing a major skilled labor shortage, and viewing robots as another source of flexible labor allows manufacturers to shift workers into more skilled positions while still maintaining production levels.
Advances in safety and customization. In the past few years, the robotics industry has expanded its reach with collaborative robots. Unlike conventional robots that are blockaded to keep humans away, these collaborative robots are designed to work closely with humans. For example, a robot may be used to hold a part and rotate it so that a human can perform fine work with the benefit of the new position. The emergence of this new generation of collaborative robot is providing a major boost for the industry by getting people talking about a new type of product.
Attention also is focused on customization opportunities. While collaborative robots are extremely useful in many environments, these machines have inherent limits in their operating parameters. “When they’re going at maximum speed and/or carrying their largest payload, they have to move in a way so as to not harm a person if there is contact,” Bonaire says. “Off-the-shelf collaborative robots can never be as fast or effective as many people expect. They let operators do things, but not always in the most optimal way.” As a result, interest––and capabilities––continue to mount in customizing applications.
Adapting to the Demands of Modern Factories
Gone are the production needs of the past, as greater flexibility in output is required in addition to achieving speed and efficiency. One of the beauties of robots is that there are many styles that can be adapted to perform any number of jobs, from picking up light, fragile objects to carrying payloads of a ton or more. These versatile machines can also be adapted to do many tasks. A single robot could be used for pick and place one day and light welding the next.
This flexibility, coupled with the ability to move precisely so as to ensure highly repeatable quality, helps make robots an indispensable tool for modern factories.
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