Think you can’t use robots? Think again


Robots are well known for the great benefits they can bring to industry – tireless, accurate and fast, they can make manufacturing much more efficient and productive. Some manufacturers and other potential industrial users continue to believe that robots are not for them – too big, too costly, not suited for their type of production or handling tasks or just too complex to program or set up.

While that may have been the case for many companies in the past, the latest developments in control software, architecture, safety, programming and handling capabilities make robots suitable for many more tasks and environments than ever before. And with costs continuing to fall, they are now being employed by SMEs, who are using robotic automation to benefit their own, often very niche, production methods.
In this article, Nigel Platt, Lead Business Manager for ABB’s UK and Ireland – Robotics and Discrete Automation, looks at how developments in robotic automation are helping to tackle the common concerns that have held back the adoption of robots in UK manufacturing

‘We can’t afford a robot’
When you factor in the accuracy and repeatability that a robot can achieve, the reduction in waste and what this can mean for the production of high quality, saleable products, robots begin to look like an increasingly sound investment. An example is a ceramics company using robotic automation in one of its critical processes. It has cut the reject rate for its products to just 1.5 percent. It has also boosted its production considerably, beating its major rivals. Added to this is the potential for cutting direct and overhead costs. With no requirement for minimum lighting or heating levels, making use of robots is a great way to cut energy bills.

‘They are too complex to program’
Programming complexity may have been a challenge in the past, but the latest robot software makes it far easier to get the result you want without the need to be a coding guru.

‘We need special tooling’
Although robots can be very versatile and easily reprogrammed for other tasks, they can still be dedicated to one specialized role if they have the right tooling.

‘We don’t think a robot could fit into our existing production system’
It can sometimes be hard to visualize how a robot could fit into a production line, so seeing an animated installation is a good way of getting a clear idea of how it will all fit together. This is made possible with a new app, which allows production engineers to see exactly how a robot or robot cell will fit into the existing factory.
The app uses Augmented Reality (AR), to place an accurate image of the robot cell into the customer’s existing, real-life production areas. The robot solution can be scaled to full size and be rotated to achieve the best result.
As well as seeing how the robot will fit around existing equipment, you can also watch the robot in action, as if you were standing right next to it. A timeline feature allows you to check the cycle time of the process, find ways to improve performance and flag up any problems. The app is used on a smart device such as a tablet, making it very easy to use. This makes it particularly appealing to SMEs, many of whom are keen to use robots but are unsure of where to start.

‘We have frequent changes of product.’
Far from being a problem, this is one of the areas that robots excel at. With the ability to automatically change tooling, materials, and programming, they eliminate much of the work involved in swapping from one product to the next. As customers demand more and more customization, this allows companies to swap easily between products, getting closer to the ideal of a batch size of one.
Collaborative robots or ‘cobots’ help manufacturers meet this demand by giving them the flexibility to manage the shift to low-volume/high-mix production. Cobots add the agility needed to change rapidly between products and introduce new products faster. People working with cobots on the production line contribute their unique problem-solving capabilities, insights, and adaptability, while robots bring their strengths of tireless precision and endurance for repetitive tasks.

‘We have special processes that can only be done by people’
Because they move quickly and can exert large forces, robots are usually separated from humans by substantial safety barriers. However, not all companies need equipment that can carry heavy masses – many manufacturers’ production involves intricate assembly of small components, with a lot of delicate hand work and selection of parts, things that only humans can do. Or can they? Again, cobots can fit the bill here. Options such as ABB’s YuMi® dual and single-arm collaborative robots offer companies the best of both worlds by combining the adaptability and intelligence of people with the tireless precision, dexterity and performance of robots. Collaborative robots or ‘cobots’ are able to work alongside people in a shared space, allowing companies to automate the assembly of many types of products on the same line.

It’s time to make the switch to robots
Although many companies, particularly SMEs, may think that their production presents insurmountable barriers to using automation, modern robots and software are showing that there are no real obstacles and that increasingly, robotic production is for everyone.


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