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Sense and Sensibilities: The Evolution of Automation

Ilene Wolff
By Ilene Wolff Contributing Editor, SME Media

Security, safety, mobility and even a measure of autonomy are just some of the areas in which automation is moving forward.

The latest trends in automation are wide-ranging. They include the integration of the cloud, Big Data and the Internet of Things; protecting the software that runs a plant from hackers; manufacturing execution system (MES) apps that can be deployed a la carte; collaborative cobots that can safely do the heavy lifting side-by-side with humans; and robots that can do more than ever before—both on the production line and well away from it.

“One of the areas that we see exploding is automating post-processing operations,” said John Lucier, national automation manager for Methods Machine Tools (Sudbury, MA). And that is often all about mobility.

Liebherr’s new robots can detect metallic, nonmetallic and organic objects, making them versatile and suitable for any industry or machine shop.

Lucier said the same robot that unloads a machining center could, where possible, also transfer parts to a cleaning and degreasing, deburring, polishing, metrology or marking station.

“The part could be placed by the robot in a gaging fixture for checking one or two important dimensions,” Lucier said. “Or even a coordinate measuring machine or complex vision system or laser micrometer.”

By making the marking station the next stop for a part after the robot removes it from the machining center, “I don’t have the option to mismark the part,” Lucier said. Add a requirement for the robot to check in and out of each operation, and you’ve just made your traceability function that much more robust.

As for the robots themselves, Lucier sees them getting faster and smaller, while handling the same payloads, as motor technology improves. They’re also being designed to work safely around humans.

“What’s exciting about the collaborative robot industry is it’s not very mature; the whole technologies (from various manufacturers) are different,” Lucier said.

Those collaborative robots aren’t necessarily standing still, either. They, too, can often be mobile.

“Instead of taking production to the robot, they take the robot to production,” said Jim Cooper, vice president of sales and marketing for KUKA Robotics (Shelby Township, MI), whose company makes a collaborative robot, although not the mobile kind that he’s describing here that have been on display at recent trade shows. “They use a programmable, moveable vehicle.”

While those robots are at work, the connected factory is getting better at gathering more data.

Paula Puess (pronounced “puce”), global marketing development manager at Rockwell Automation (Milwaukee, WI), sees the drop in prices for sensors making Big Data acquisition, analysis and application more prevalent in the factory.

“Rockwell has a unique position in that we have the control gateways and information side of the portfolio,” said Puess. That includes Rockwell’s cloud-based FactoryTalk suite of manufacturing software, including remote monitoring solutions. “We are birthing data rapidly on the plant floor.”

Protecting that data and the operations and industrial control systems’ hardware and software from hackers is becoming more crucial. Companies like PAS (Houston), whose clients are in the power generation, processing and manufacturing industries, are rising to the challenge.

Mark Carrigan, senior vice president of global operations for PAS, said: “It’s not so much you’re trying to protect secrets. I don’t want someone messing up my systems.”

With more and more manufacturing getting tied to the Industrial Internet of Things, but often still relying on aging software, factories are an ever-growing target for cybercriminals. The reason for the software lag is simple.

“The software is expensive and complex,” Carrigan said, and therefore not replaced easily or often. “When it was put in, security wasn’t an issue and there are lots of holes. One of our strengths is that we’ve built adaptors to work with these old control systems.”

Carrigan said that hackers will get into a system—most often entering via a phishing scam—and look around for months or even years before attacking, making changes to the control system that normally go undetected. PAS’ services include detecting if a change has been made.

“I can tell you everything that’s changed on a control system over time,” he said. “The next step is rolling back the system to its previous configuration.”

As sometimes happens, however, the existing technology itself dies off in the face of new, digitized processes.

“Certain types of machines, like vertical machining centers, are not made for automation because they need an operator standing in front of them,” said Robert Humphreys, international sales manager for factory automation company Fastems (West Chester, OH).

The sole advantage to a vertical machining center is its low initial cost, said Humphreys, but the owners’ labor costs will increase year after year.

What’s the answer? “Maybe not doing away with vertical machining centers,” Humphreys said in predicting the future of automation. “But some sort of move to make vertical machining centers more productive.”

A La Carte Menu of Apps

RedViking (Plymouth, MI) recently introduced Argonaut, a manufacturing execution system that not only rejects the one-size-fits-all approach to MES by serving up apps that can be ordered a la carte, it also scraps the need for a server, line-side PCs and a top-heavy information technology department.

Like Greek mythology’s Argonauts, a band of heroes who helped Jason find the Golden Fleece, each of Argonaut’s nine current apps can be leased and deployed in any number by a manufacturer and rolled out as needed for the following functions:

“We’re delivering engineering information to the plant floor so the operators can act upon it,” said Greg Giles, executive director, MES/Argonaut, in describing what his team, and Argonaut, do. “And then collecting information from operators and equipment on the shop floor and pushing that information up to the top floor for engineers to review that information, make decisions and be proactive about making decisions about how things are going on the manufacturing floor. It could be traceability, error proofing, all kinds of systems.”

The system’s hardware and subscription-based software are IIoT-friendly and are designed to be turnkey. The apps can be updated and managed from a central location.

“Our customers want a system they can manage from their desks, from their phones,” said Giles.

Fanuc’s collaborative robots have a maximum speed of 1000 mm/sec that slows to a maximum of half that rate when they detect people nearby.

Not only does Argonaut eliminate the need for PCs on the shop floor, it also reduces or eliminates the need for a sizable information technology staff because the apps are meant to be deployed by a technician, rather than a software engineer. The apps’ graphics are also deliberately designed to look familiar and appeal to the younger worker.

Argonaut is designed for the cloud, which eliminates the need for an on-site server. However, the software can also be hosted on local servers if the customer prefers. Argonaut can integrate third-party software, including legacy software already in use at a plant. One third-party software partner, Inductive Automation (Folsom, CA), has integrated its Ignition supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) platform with Argonaut.

In development since 2014, Argonaut is in active use by many RedViking customers. Among them is a driveline manufacturer that serves the majority of worldwide automakers. This company is rolling out Argonaut track and trace with pack out, allowing integrating previously dissimilar traceability systems into Argonaut’s modular framework. Argonaut is driving its new corporate standard for tracking and traceability.

A lithium-ion battery manufacturer is using Argonaut’s automated work instructions, track and trace, and HMI bridge applications. Automated work instructions send recipe data to plant floor PLCs and gather measurement and test data from operators through an HMI. Track and trace is used as the primary recordkeeper for product genealogy data, while HMI Bridge is used to present legacy Web-based applications to operators on the plant floor.

In aerospace, a fixed-wing aircraft manufacturer is using Argonaut’s automated work instructions together with the kitting and sequencing application to deliver tooling to a set of CNCs. First, the kitting and sequencing application integrates with the company’s ERP software to interpret production schedules and release jobs to the plant floor. Automated work instructions show operators how to group tools for job orders according to production schedules.

Collaborative Robots Work Slow or Fast

On the equipment side, one of the newer things in automation are collaborative robots that can work safely side by side with humans, without the need for guarding.

FANUC America Corp. (Rochester Hills, MI) introduced three table-top-size collaborative robots in September. The company had previously introduced one heavy-payload collaborative robot.

“Everybody’s buying a few to test them out and see how they fit into the manufacturing process,” said Chris Blanchette, account manager for assembly and aerospace at FANUC. “They’re putting feelers out.”

So far, Blanchette said the people-friendly robots are in use at a commercial medical laboratory, where they’re sorting, labeling and moving samples to be tested; at automotive companies for ergonomically challenging tasks like lifting and putting a spare tire into a vehicle’s trunk before a human operator bolts it down, or applying sealant on the underbelly of a car; and for hazardous, repetitive tasks or jobs where precision is required, such as putting chips on boards or assembling small components.

The robots are also suitable for machine tool loading and unloading as well as packing operations in food manufacturing, Blanchette said.

What makes them suited for safely working alongside humans is the integrated safety-rated collaborative sensor. These robots also have intelligent features like machine vision and force sensing built in.

One factor that’s different about these collaborative robots compared with typical robots is their speed, which is 500 mm/sec (19.7 ips) maximum when they detect a person is nearby.

“Which is a downfall,” said Blanchette. “But what it does give you is the ability to quickly change what’s going on in an assembly line without having to add the guarding.”

These robotic collaborators can work much faster when people aren’t around, with a maximum speed of 1000 mm/sec (3.28 fps).

The new compact CR-7iA, CR-7iA/L, and CR-4iA collaborative robots offer a reach of 550–911 mm and a payload of 4–7 kg. They can be mounted on the floor, a wall or ceiling, as well as on a moveable cart. Their green color is consistent with the “safe” foam covering of the CR-35iA and these units include guards, made of a soft plastic, that are designed to prevent pinching from their articulated joints. They operate with a small controller than runs on 120V.

The CR-35iA collaborative robot, FANUC’s first, features six-axis articulation, with a payload of 35 kg and a reach of 1813 mm.

New Robots Can See More Materials

Liebherr Automation Systems North America (Saline, MI) recently introduced a new solution for random bin picking that can handle metals as well as nonmetallic materials and organics, making it suitable for any kind of industry or machine shop, and a rotary pallet handler capable of lights-out operation.

“Traditionally, we have delivered a lot of automation to the automotive industry for making powertrain parts,” said Peter Wiedemann, president of Liebherr Automation Systems North America.

Recently, though, the production line integrator introduced automation that’s smarter, more flexible and suitable for not just the auto industry but a wide variety of others.

Liebherr’s new robots can detect metallic, nonmetallic and organic objects, making them versatile and suitable for any industry or machine shop.

To make that happen, the company combined a new vision system with its existing bin-picking solution. The new image recognition system uses a combination of cameras and laser imaging sensors. This captures reflective components more reliably and recognizes organic or semi-transparent materials as well as metal components, making applications outside of the metalworking industry feasible. For example, when combined with logistics software, the pick-and-place robot can be used for order fulfillment in a warehouse setting using a completely automated system that enables the end user to reduce overhead and increase efficiency.

The new vision system is continuously being improved. Its effective recognition rate has recently been reduced by more than five seconds, making it a more attractive solution for shorter cycle time production situations.

Its three bin picker robots can handle payloads of 0–5 kg, 5–20 kg, or 20–40 kg, from bins up to 1-m deep. In a factory, the robot can place parts on a machine, put them on a transport system, or deposit them in an organized storage bin.

The company has also simplified the machine’s PC-based software to make it easier to program changes.

But also on the “menu” from Liebherr is a linear pallet loading system that can automatically tend up to six machines and increase spindle time to more than 90%. Its Soflex PCS cell controller software calculates production times, monitors tool life, optimizes production schedules, analyzes throughput, and more, making it suitable for lights-out operations.

The rotary loading system is available in two models. The RLS 800 can transport parts up to 800 kg, with a height of up to 1100 mm (including the pallet) and a diameter of up to 800 mm. The RLS 1500 can transport parts up to 1500 kg, with a height of up to 1400 mm (including the pallet) and a diameter of up to 1300 mm.

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