With the latest robotics, software, and automation gear, manufacturers can optimize productivity
By Patrick Waurzyniak
Robots with vision, new modular conveyor equipment, and improved automation software applications are helping manufacturers improve production efficiencies to gain an edge as global competition intensifies.
Increasing plant-floor productivity with newer robotic systems, automation hardware, and enhanced software are all key for manufacturers trying to keep up with the pack and stay afloat in the face of fierce competition. Recent introductions of newer vision-equipped robots, improved palletizing gear with modular conveyor systems, and updated software applications are among the latest additions to streamline manufacturing.
Vision-guided robots enhance productivity in many new ways as robotics manufacturers add vision capabilities to robots performing intelligent bin-picking and conveyor-tracking tasks. At the International Robots & Vision Show in Chicago, FANUC Robotics America Inc. (Rochester Hills, MI) featured several systems, including its new high-speed, six-axis M-6iB/6S Solution Arm equipped with FANUC's V-500iA/2DV vision sensor. The system demonstrated high-speed picking using visual line tracking to pick and transfer randomly placed parts from a moving conveyor. The FANUC Solution Arm series offers several models and enhancements aimed at applications including assembly, part transfer, picking, and packing, and the systems employ designs that route air lines and electrical connections to the end-of-arm-tool.
"We're developing some standard features that could ease the automation engineers' integration time," notes Dick Johnson, FANUC Robotics general manager, material handling. "We're trying to solve the issue of cable routing and cable breakage to the end-of-arm tool. We supply the robot and the integration engineer has to hook up the end-effector. We provide a retrofittable kit that offsets the J6 axis; in the case of the integrator, he has a pre-designed and tested system, and the end user gets a more elegant solution.
Visual line tracking offers robot manufacturers a way to greatly speed material-handling tasks on conveyors. "There's an advantage with a robot being able to pick moving parts, making it easier to automate the factory," Johnson adds. "In the past, we could queue up the parts on a moving belt, take a picture of the static parts, then have the robot pick a part and load a machine tool. But with this capability we can do it on the fly, and it simplifies the system. Visual tracking allows the robot to not only identify where the part is at a given point in time, but also where it's located as it's moving down the conveyor."
Vision-equipped robots from Motoman Inc. (West Carrollton, OH) can handle complex vision applications, including bin-picking. At the International Robots & Vision Show, Motoman demonstrated its six-axis HP165 robot performing bin-picking of differential housings. With such vision-guided bin-picking technology, the company says the system offers significant cost savings to manufacturers by eliminating the need for custom dunnage trays or locating devices to repeatably position parts, as previously required for some robotic applications.
The Motoman vision-equipped robots use the Reliabot 3-D vision package from Shafi Inc. (Brighton, MI) and the In-Sight, CheckPoint, or MVS 8100 series products from Cognex Corp. (Natick, MA). The Reliabot 3-D system supports true 3-D (X, Y, Z, yaw, pitch, roll) with one, two or three cameras—without the use of range sensors or lasers, according to Motoman, and the robots control the vision system and access to part positional information using either serial or DeviceNet interfaces.
Enhanced programming software also has helped robot suppliers to offer more productivity improvements to customers, with easier methods for off-line programming and for simulation of robotic movements in workcells. Motoman recently introduced an updated version of its MotoSim EG (Motoman Simulation System with Enhanced Graphics) software that allows users to optimize robot placement, minimize fixturing errors, and reduce robot installation time. The MotoSim EG software features the same easy-to-use INFORM language instructions as the robot controller to minimize the effort required to perform off-line programming. The updated MotoSIM EG package now includes functionality from the HOOPS 3-D graphics engine used by many CAD/CAM software programs, allowing users to import many common CAD file formats without additional translation or conversion tools.
"The robot manufacturers have developed their own simulation products, but those have been truly simulation products, not CAD products," notes Motoman's Carl Traynor. "The CAD element of those has traditionally been the weakest element. We're strong on the robot path-planning, but we didn't have the CAD element. By incorporating HOOPS, we're bridging that gap between the robot simulation side and the traditional third-party CAD provider. It helps in a number of ways, most importantly by direct-import tools.
"In the past, you might have the greatest capability to do the simulation, but if you don't get the CAD data into the simulation product, you really haven't accomplished much," he adds, "so that's been a big barrier. People who have learned PC simulation products haven't had traditional CAD tools, like being able to add notes or to be able to measure distances, doing all those things that more or less anybody in CAD doesn't even think twice about. We've been able to add that functionality."
In addition, Motoman recently released its new G-Code Converter application that uses standard G-code programs used by machine-tool CNCs to generate production robot programs. With the G-Code Converter, users can reduce the time required to program robot systems to perform tasks typically done by CNCs, according to Motoman. The software allows users to optimize their operations by using standard six-axis devices to perform lower-tolerance applications involving tasks such as cutting, deburring, trimming, engraving, drilling and tapping, mold creation, and surface finishing. "There's process information that you have on the G codes that now we're able to bring into the robot program automatically," Traynor notes. "You don't have to re-teach things."
Using the G-code conversion software allows machine tool operators to leverage decades worth of development time invested by the machine tool industry, adds Greg Webb, Motoman robot controls and PC software leader. "G codes are an open standard that have been developed in the CNC world for 20-plus years, and because of that they have a lot of third-party CAD/CAM vendors that have jumped on the bandwagon and have literally hundreds of man-years of software development in processes such as drilling and tapping, deburring, material removal, mold creation," Webb says. "On the other side, the robots have virtually no standards, because we have no common robot language. So we thought, why don't we just convert their programs? We have users with a mix of robots and CNCs, and some other users who were using CNCs and would like to get into robotics."
The conversion software is said to be well-suited to users working with standard CAD/CAM packages that use highly developed, process-specific application tools to create complex cutting and material-removal paths.
Updated Proficy automation software allows users real-time views of factory-floor performance
Robotic simulation with the latest version of FANUC Robotics' Roboguide software adds a new feature, called CAD-to-Path Programming, which allows robot users to speed up off-line programming. The software offers users technology for off-line robot simulation software with the Virtual Robot Controller and full-featured robot programming, giving engineers tools to develop and test a complete robotic application in a simulation environment without the time and costs associated with developing a prototype workcell.
The Roboguide software enables users to simulate a robotic process in 3-D space, providing the most accurate cycle-time information for FANUC robots compared to any other simulation package available, according to the company.
"It's going to help the robot programmers reduce the amount of time it takes to do their programming," notes FANUC's Johnson. "Everyone knows that when you mass-produce your product in very high volume, say a quarter million per year or more, it's pretty easy to justify automation. But many people have been trying to get the batch manufacturers to automate, and one issue has been the amount of time it takes to program the different part families.
"If we can reduce this through our CAD-to-Path offline programming, this will make batch manufacturing economically feasible," Johnson adds. "It's particularly important for a continuous path, and those applications would be things like arc welding, like waterjet cutting. If we can simplify the programming time to do continuous-path applications, there would be a tremendous productivity improvement."
Modular conveyor systems from Bosch Rexroth Corp. (Hoffman Estates, IL) also offer manufacturers new ways to speed up production on the factory floor by using the latest gear for automated palletizing techniques. With Bosch Rexroth's updated VarioFlow modular conveyor system, manufacturers can economically upgrade their parts-conveyance systems to optimize factory-floor processes.
With the VarioFlow system, manufacturers get a high-speed, highly reliable pallet system in a package aimed at lowering overall costs of ownership, according to Tony Barr, Bosch Rexroth product manager. "The pallet transport is the basic platform that makes up the core of the system; there are trafficking devices and position-locating modules that make it a functioning pallet system for a machine tool.
"The VarioFlow is a modular conveyor system using a flexible, multiflexing plastic chain as the principal transport medium," Barr adds. "This type of conveyor, versus a conventional conveyor, has significant advantages, particularly in terms of cost, implementation, and total cost of ownership."
The customizable, modular system makes it easy for manufacturers to quickly adapt to changing production requirements. "Since it adapts over time as you have new process layouts and new requirements, you have an advantage in that you're protecting your original investment in productivity," Barr says. "You don't have to scrap the conveyor as the layout changes."
The pallet system design itself is modular, with an extruded aluminum pallet plate on which parts, with payloads up to 18 lb (8 kg), or fixtures can be attached. Featuring a hardened steel plate that rides atop the chain, the pallets come in 65 and 90-mm widths, and the length also is customizable from 80 to 105 mm, Barr notes.
Automation software also enhances productivity by offering manufacturers real-time views of factory-floor performance. With its recently updated Proficy Real-Time Information Portal version 2.5, GE Fanuc Automation Americas (Charlottesville, VA) gives users tools to integrate online and process-based systems with plant-wide connectivity, analysis, and visualization components.
By applying sophisticated trending, graphical presentation, and statistical analysis to online data, the Proficy Real-Time Information Portal offers users facility-wide views and insight into how plants are operating and how to improve performance. The software offers a common Web client and reporting environment for a fully integrated solution that maximizes GE Fanuc software applications, as well as data and content from other automation solution suppliers and legacy business systems.
"This application is a resource for business providing visibility into plant-floor operations," notes Jack Wilkins, GE Fanuc Proficy product manager. "It enables real-time decision support and continuous process improvement, and enhances the return on current and future IT investments."
This article was first published in the January 2006 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.