Get it together

2019-10-09 3 min read

For children at Christmas, there is nothing more annoying than receiving a gift without batteries included.  Receiving your industrial robot only to find out it will take several weeks to set up and program is a similar frustration.

Manufacturers turn to robotics to solve a specific problem on a line, for example to improve quality or output. Based on the principles of lean manufacturing, manufacturers often operate in a cellular way, using multiple cells in an assembly line with each product moving from one cell to the next — either manually or using automation.

A robot cell includes a robot, its controller and the peripheral equipment needed for it to perform its function, such as end of arm tooling like grippers, sensors or welding torches. However, a robot usually comes with a controller to drive movement and a teach pendant for programming — just purchasing a robot alone doesn’t mean it will work for your application. The manufacturer will have to make further considerations about the environment, such as where it needs part feeding mechanisms or protective fencing.

Of course, it is possible to purchase a turnkey solution from a robotic systems integrator, who will fully integrate a solution. If the application is not standard, the integrator may have to develop and build a custom solution. According to Samuel Bouchard in his book Lean Robotics, an industrial robot can cost $80,000, with the cost of additional materials, programming and custom engineering taking the project total to around $250,000. Starting a project is therefore not something to consider lightly.

Making it happen

When thinking about automating a manual process, manufacturers must think carefully about what there is to be gained, ensure the task is structured enough for a robot to perform and that they have the right team for all stages of the project. They will also need to think about how their employees will fit around the automated cell. For example, what will welding staff do if welding robots are purchased? Do you have the capacity to train them to program and work alongside the robot? The manufacturer can also calculate ROI before making a firm decision.

The next decision is on which robot to purchase — considering reach, payload, speed and compatibility with tooling. Other factors in the cell such as sensors, safety and software are vital to the project and the manufacturer should consider all of these when planning a layout. You also want to be sure that when the robot arrives, you will be able to program it for your application — you will either require the skills in-house or the expertise of a systems integrator.

Easier programming

Robot manufacturers are working to make it easier for a robot to be set up in a new work cell. For example, Universal Robots offers an Application Builder tool, which eases configuration and deployment and raises the capabilities of the robot. The tool walks the operator through the entire process of building the application including tooling, helping manufacturers to set up a complete application.

One additional consideration when implementing robotics is what you will do in the event of a breakdown. To create value, you need to avoid downtime in the cell. Manufacturers should update their obsolescence management strategy so that it covers the new robot and other parts in the cell. By keeping a log book and building a relationship with an automation equipment supplier, manufacturers can prevent unplanned downtime from wreaking havoc on their robotic investments.

When automating a process in your factory, manufacturers want to get off to a running start. By asking the right questions at the beginning of the project and preparing for all eventualities, you can be sure to generate value from your investment. And if you’re feeling really prepared, why don’t you purchase the batteries in advance next Christmas?