Best of 2016: When to automate with robots

When to automate with robots

Facing increased customer demand, pricing pressures from customers, and the need to improve quality and consistency? Then read on to understand how and when robotic integration in manufacturing cells benefits a company and its workers.

Taking the leap to add robotics into a company’s operations may not be an easy decision – especially when there are so many options available. Add to that the unknown of calculating the return on investment (ROI), and some may even shy away, feeling company size or processes won’t benefit.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. To help understand the role robots and automation play in a manufacturing facility, Ryan Weaver, automation engineer with Axis New England – a Universal Robots distributor – helps sort out the questions and anxiety that some people have.

TMD: What manufacturing processes benefit from robots?

RW: Any repetitive manual process tends to be a candidate for automation, but the approach will vary depending on several factors, such as ROI, throughput, and process variability.

The first robotic cell that Tegra Medical built featured a UR5 robot arm from Universal Robots, handling 70,000 parts per day in Tegra’s 24/6 production.

Traditionally, robots were suited to high-speed, low-variability tasks, with fixed guarding and custom integration. ROI for these work cells needs to provide quick payback because of the high-cost and low-flexibility.

The approach today is a bit different. Rather than being a component within a highly engineered automation system, Universal Robots are deployed as tools for handling the repetitive manual portion of a task. The overall cost of deployment is significantly reduced since there is no guarding necessary. In addition, the programming is simple and can be handled by the user, so we can consider using Universal Robots on tasks where previously we could never justify a traditional robot.

TMD: How does integration enable flexibility of a manufacturing line? Can it quickly switch from one product run to another, or are most integrations done for a specific process?

RW: We have seen installations go both ways; sometimes robots are used in a dedicated process, other times they will be used with a process where there is constant changeover. Universal Robots are well suited to tasks where there is changeover because of the ability to safely use robots without guarding. Since the workspace isn’t restricted by cages, it is easier to reconfigure for the next job than a traditional robot cell would be.

TMD: What manufacturing processes support the most effective robotic systems?

RW: We always look for the simplest solution to the problem first, then scale up as required. It is easier and less expensive to have some human tending of the robot system than it is to fully automate. For example, we will try to explore mechanical ways of fixturing parts presented to a robot before we jump straight into machine vision guidance. A lot of that peripheral automation adds layers of complexity that we only want to explore if necessary.

TMD: How does material handling determine the right robotics/automation approach?
Tegra employees can work right next to UR robots without any fencing due to the robot’s built in safety system that stops the robot from operating if it will collide with a person. As an extra precaution, Tegra installed safety mats. Once the employee steps onto the mat next to the robot, the robot stops operating immediately.
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