Software Update: New Programming Tools Can Extend Robotic Automation Capabilities
Automotive Technology and Support
Auburn Hills, MI
Manufacturing Engineering: What new developments in software are coming from your company?
Nick Hunt: Each year we release new software features, add-ons and general enhancements. Our core robot operating system is called RobotWare, and our offline programing system is called RobotStudio. These products are designed to interact seamlessly, but also with complete autonomy. For RobotWare, there are a number of new features, commands and support for applications ranging from arc welding to fieldbus I/O messaging to non-tactile sensor and GUI interface technology.
One very important aspect of any program is the ability to act intelligently on unscheduled events, such as equipment faults or the overlooked arithmetic error. If dealt with during automatic operation, no human will need to be bothered attending to it. The RobotWare RAPID language has always provided extensive error-handling support; but the latest release of RobotWare Arc, for example, gives programmers the ability to define their own arc-welding trap routines, both pre- and post-fault enunciation.
If a weld fault occurs, the robot position and fault information from the welding power supply are automatically captured and analyzed from within the user-defined pre-process routine. Then the FlexPendant enunciates the fault to the operator. However, the fault details have in effect already been analyzed by a welding engineer.
The standardized RobotWare Arc error message now shows a ‘Recovery Menu’ in place of the standard ‘Resume’ button. When the operator selects the Recovery Menu option, a very specific list of recovery methods is presented. The operator doesn’t have to worry about getting someone with a different skillset to jog the robot out of the workpiece and reset the system. That’s a cumbersome process which can lead to other issues not even related to the original fault condition, not to mention the added downtime while waiting for help. Oh by the way, when the appropriately skilled person arrives, a troubleshooting process is still required before recovery can begin.
By pre-handling the fault analysis and recovery decisions, the skill level of the operator is effectively elevated to that of a welding application engineer. In my experience, automatic fault handling and recovery isn’t given near the attention it deserves, especially during the application development phase. Intelligent recovery makes it easier to design-in expertise that otherwise might not be available. Factories can now spend more time producing with their automation investment, and less time throwing skilled labor at it making it work.
ME: What other new or unusual software features are available?
Hunt: Another under-utilized software feature is SoftMove. It requires no extra hardware to implement and can significantly reduce the cost of automation. SoftMove leverages our motion control technology by allowing the robot to be compliant in one direction or plane while remaining stiff in others. You can even have the robot float by being compliant in all directions, if necessary. This software feature can be used to locate parts, or as a sort of poor-man’s force control, or maybe a kind of hand-held measurement device. You could even have the robot assist an operator in moving heavy objects. SoftMove is TCP-sensitive, because it will not recognize the need to comply unless the force is acting on the tool center point, or TCP. SoftMove is an extremely powerful feature.
ME: How does a robot function as a hand-held measurement device?
Hunt: The robot is a very accurate and extremely repeatable tool. Imagine a measurement probe mounted onto the robot tooling flange. Remember I said the robot can be made to float, or be compliant in all directions? Well, the robot doesn’t just flop to the ground when it enters that mode, it basically just sits there. With the proper safety precautions in place of course, you could potentially grab hold of the measurement probe, and with robot in tow, move it to a location you want to begin a measurement. Then you just press a button on the tool which tells the robot to store that location, move on to the next, and so forth, each time storing the locations until you’re finished.
ME: How do robots deal with that data?
Hunt: As you would expect from an industrial robot, and this is especially true with the IRC5 controller, it’s extremely efficient at interpreting coordinate information, and there are a number of functions in the RAPID language that can quickly crunch that data. With a little RAPID programming, it’s no trouble to produce a number of results from those 3D measurements. But that’s not really what our developers had in mind when they developed the SoftMove feature; it was developed for assembly operations, mostly as a way to reduce the cost of tooling and fixturing. By allowing the robot to comply in a well-defined or constrained manner, the robot can sort of feel its way through, allowing the real world to dictate the process instead of brute force trying to get mating parts to mate.
ME: Are you seeing increased use of sensor technology for robotic automation?
Hunt: Requests from industry for sensor technology are increasing so robots have to play nice with these devices, both electrically as well as programmatically. The slope of the curve in the demand for sensor technology doesn’t seem to be leveling off any time soon. This means the robot OS and its associated hardware platform must track a similarly sloped curve—steeper if possible. Sensor devices and single-board computers are readily accessible to any hobbyist for $75 or less; and, courtesy of the Internet and ROS libraries, hobbyists can build a functional, albeit primitive, robot in their basement.
ME: Do companies typically use consumer hobby electronics in their manufacturing process?
Hunt: No. But when you consider the fact that today’s hobbyists are tomorrow’s industrial engineers, it’s not hard to see where the push is coming from, or will come from. But I don’t want to give you the idea that only inexpensive hobbyist-type sensors are available. Not by a long shot. Robust factory-hardened sensors are coming on the market all the time.
ME: How does the increasing availability of factory-hardened sensor equipment affect robot software requirements?
Hunt: For an industrial robot OEM, it translates into flexibility and scalability. The shark circling in the water is the continually advancing technology, and that’s not by any means a bad thing. It just means that if we don’t embrace it through embedding, SIGs [special interest groups], and other means, that shark will end up devouring our resources developing bolt-on fixes. Instead of ‘we need a bigger boat,’ it’s ‘we need a smaller form factor… and more CPU cores!’” ME
PLM developer Dassault Systèmes (Velizy-Villacoublay, France) announced Sept. 4 that is has acquired Safe Technology Ltd. (Sheffield, UK), a developer of fatigue simulation solutions. Dassault said the acquisition will expand its 3DExperience platform and its Simulia realistic simulation applications, providing a complete and accurate durability solution. No financial details of the transaction were disclosed.
SofTech Inc. (Lowell, MA) announced Sept. 3 that it would sell its Cadra CAD software product line to Mentor Graphics Corp. (Wilsonville, OR) for $3.2 million, plus potential earn-out payments of up to an additional $750,000 based on 10% of Cadra revenue generated by Mentor in the three-year period following the closing. SofTech is a provider of engineering software solutions including its ProductCenter PLM technology and Cadra solutions. Mentor is a developer of electronic design automation (EDA) software.
Siemens Industry Inc. (Alpharetta, GA) has released an updated version of its Simatic Information Server platform that includes simplified reporting and analysis. The Simatic Information Server uses Web-based interfaces to easily create reports and analyze data from Siemens WinCC V7.2 SCADA software, PCS 7 OS or the Simatic Process Historian system.
Based on Microsoft Reporting Services, the Simatic server allows users without previous programming experience to quickly generate report templates and retrieve global system data. Transparent access to archived production data provides task-related system parameters, including management, quality assurance and maintenance. Optimization measures are quickly executed to increase plant productivity and availability.
Geometric Ltd. (Mumbai, India) Aug. 20 announced the launch of Geometric DFX, a stand-alone application for carrying out DFX validation of product designs. Geometric DFX is based on Geometric’s design for manufacturability solution DFMPro, and leverages the CGM 3D modeling kernel from Spatial Corp. (Broomfield, CO), a provider of 3D components for technical application development.
Software Update is edited by Patrick Waurzyniak: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was first published in the October 2013 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.