More Than a Spot Welder

“There’s a lot of chatter about the emergence of the robotics business,” says John Dulchinos, vice president and general manager of Livermore, Calif.-based Adept Technology Inc.’s (www.adept.com) robotics unit.

“Actually, these applications now being sold are the same ones that the automotive-welding world used 20 years ago.”

But automotive manufacturing and welding are still the robotics industry’s backbone, declares Joe Campbell, director of strategic alliances for KUKA Robotics (www.kuka.com/usa/en), in Clinton Township, Mich.

There is a difference between the older spot welding applications and today’s generation of industrial applications. That difference is in sensing technology, Dulchinos says, referring specifically to the integration of robots and vision technology.

Robots get eyes

That technology gives robots the ability to adapt to their environment, he explains. “All of the sudden, you can see where the part is. You know its x, y and z coordinates and its pose, how it lies in space. Once you know that, you can move robots or some other mechanical device to exactly where that part is,” explains Owen Jones, chief executive officer and founder of Braintech Inc. (www.braintech.com), North Vancouver, B.C., Canada. ABB (www.abb.com) uses Braintech’s vision guided robotics software for robotic automotive applications, he says.

Besides having eyes now, not all robots are one-armed, either. Motoman Inc. (www.motoman.com) created a two-armed industrial robot that’s been used by some major Japanese automotive manufacturers. “This is a natural evolution to two arms, made possible through controls technology, in going from a simple six-axes controller to 11, 12 or up to 24 axes,” says Ron Potter, senior director of emerging robot technologies for West Carrollton, Ohio-based Motoman. In the automotive application, in a coordinated fashion, the robot takes up a part with one gripper and works on it with the other gripper. In a machine-tool unloading and loading application, the robot removes the finished part with one arm and inserts a new part with the other arm, he says. And for a truly unique non-industrial application, Motoman created Robobar, a robotic bartender.

Other robotics advancements involve computer-aided design (CAD), computer-assisted manufacturing (CAM) and robotics becoming more precise, accurate and stiffer, which affect the robot’s ability to maintain a position or path, says Campbell. All three developments converging opens a new class of applications for robots, which includes milling, machining and other materials removal processes, he says.

Grind lightweight parts

KUKA teams up with New Berlin, Wis.-based Programming Plus Inc. (www.programmingplus.com) to create news uses of robots in those areas, including one that does complex five-axes milling. “The specialty of the solution is trimming and grinding of lightweight components, such as plastics, fiberglass and polyurethanes or composites,” says Tom Bentley, Programming Plus president. “The other area is large-format milling of softer materials. We’re competing directly with the CNC (computer numerically controlled) gantry routers.”

Doing its share of grinding is Weiler Corp. (www.weilercorp.com), of Cresco, Pa., which focuses on deburring and finishing, says Rick Sawyer, engineered solution manager. One application he notes is for jet turbine blades and vanes. “When companies deburr them—they’re very expensive parts, made of exotic metals—they go through multiple grinding and machining steps. Deburring is one the last operations, when the part is of most value. Robots can produce more parts per hour finished plus fewer rejects,” Sawyer says.

In general, though, why robotics? “One of the main reasons is repeatability and consistency of whatever the operation,” Sawyer responds. About robots’ overall capabilities—and directly related to lower costs of manufacturing, higher production and operational flexibility—he adds that there are manufacturing facilities that use unattended robots to run entire third shifts.

C. Kenna Amos, ckamosjr@earthlink.net, is an Automation World contributing editor.

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