Automation comes in many forms, from solenoid-activated air bursts, to programmed 5-axis milling machines with interchangeable carts for in-coming and out-going goods. In the middle are a group of machines wholly called robots, which serve a diverse range of functions in the factory. When is it time for this level of automation? What can they do that people can’t do? Are they affordable? Will the benefit outweigh the cost?
Is it time for a Robot?
Many new equipment purchases can be ordered with a robot
For example, an injection-molding machine can have a pick & place robot as an accessory to remove parts and sprue, and pack the parts into bins. While this can be achieved to some degree with conventional pneumatic picker arms, delicate parts can be handled to minimize damage and cosmetic blemishes more effectively by a robot. Since robots typical run on electric servo-motors, they are faster, and cost less than pneumatics. As most shop owners know, compressed air is the most expensive utility in your shop – often 3 to 4 times the cost of electricity.
Robots can also be utilized in clean rooms to handle parts and complete manufacturing steps. This saves time by eliminating both the need for employees to gown up, as well as to engage in the monotony of repetitive tasks.
Rule of Thumb: A robot may make sense for new equipment purchases, where the capital cost of the robot can be rolled into, and amortized with the purchase of production machinery. Contamination – critical areas, physically stressful areas (confined space, high heat, etc.) are also good candidate uses.
What can robots do?
The list of tasks that can be automated by robotics continues to grow:
- Palletizing / Depalletizing
- Machine Load/Unload
- Case Packing
- End of Process / End of Line
- Material Handling / Transfer
- Machine Tending
- Robotic Sortation, Storage, and Retrieval
- Visual & Functional Inspection
Robotics has become so prevalent these days that the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has developed a list of core purposes. Here is an overview of the core purpose of industrial robotics:
- Be able to perform all of its tasks automatically
- Be able to be reprogrammed and thereby adjusted for reuse or reapplication
- Act as a “multipurpose manipulator”
- Be able to move on at least three axes of motion
In some areas of the United States and Europe the cost of living and subsequent cost of wages is a deterrent to the growth of manufacturing operations. One option for these companies is to leave the geographic area and re-locate to a less-expensive labor pool. Another option is to consider the use of robotics to meet some of the labor requirements and remain part of the existing community, and focus on hiring highly skilled / highly educated people for the higher paid positions (engineers, designers, machine programmers, etc.)
5 questions to ask about your production process and the use of robotics
1) How large & complex is your production system?
You would of course perform a value stream map to optimize production steps first and eliminate excessive movement and waiting. Next step though is to see where multiple production steps could be automated, to increase speed, reduce worker risk, or decrease parts-handling. For example, a robot could stack pallets of completed products, and move the stacked pallets to the other side of the room.
2) How automated do you want to be?
Bigger factories usually automate because the can afford the expense, and they also tend to have some types of automation already in place (i.e. bar code scanning / materials Resource Planning systems, inventory shipping systems, wire-guided search and retrieval of stock or finished goods, conveyor-ized goods movement.) Smaller operations are more likely to use people to perform the same tasks.
3) How quickly, and/or precisely does your production process move?
Robots can perform very precise tasks very quickly. This is a great advantage for high-cost parts of any weight or shape where part damage, results in a large loss of value-added time and materials. Some example industries include; aerospace, engine manufacturing, electronics, computer chip fabrication, medical devices.) Robots can also be utilized for high-speed inspection or testing, where a part can be moved along directly to packing.
4.) What is the scope and rate of expected future growth in the production processes?
The agility of robotic / automated systems allows them to be re-programmed / re-purposed for new tasks. This flexibility allows you to adapt to changes in customer demands, product mix, or even offer short-run customized levels of products.
5.) What impact will this have on my existing workforce?
The word “robot” in manufacturing has traditionally been met with great skepticism among the shop floor and unionized labor groups. Engaging these people in a dialogue, discussion of options, needs and expected growth / benefits of bringing in more automation, will help assuage fears of layoffs and wage stagnation. As with any process improvement project, team involvement is critical for adoption and success.