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Non-Automotive Manufacturing Sectors Flocking to Robotics

Ilene Wolff
By Ilene Wolff Contributing Editor, SME Media
ABB’s YuMi has two arms, so one can be a fixture to hold a part and the other can be a working hand. (Provided by ABB)

But robots may never completely run production.

Cheaper robots with more functions, along with more flexible work cells and installations that facilitate robotics, are accelerating the growth of automated manufacturing facilities in the non-automotive sector. Ideas on whether robotics and automation lead to lights-out manufacturing on the shop floor, though, are mixed.

While the overall number of units sold and revenue for robotics in 2018 were down, industrial robot orders actually grew 24% over the previous year in the life sciences, food and consumer goods, plastics and rubber and electronics industries, according to the Robotics Industries Association.

There are many reasons for the growth—among them are robotic systems are easier to install, integrate into an automation system and program.

For example, the approach of Switzerland-based ABB is to produce a range of standardized, modular automation solutions vs. designing and engineering bespoke work cells for each of its clients.

“All of that cuts the time down because we’re not spending weeks or months designing and engineering them,” said Dwight Morgan, vice president of sales and marketing for ABB USA Robotics, Auburn Hills, Mich. “So, within all the applications in which we engage, such as machine tool tending or packaging, we have a family of standard solutions that allow us to move really quickly and establish short lead times.”

FANUC America Corp., Rochester Hills, Mich., offers mobile-enabled robots that can be put on wheels or picked up with a lift truck and set in place.

“And, typically, they’re a little more self-contained, so there are fewer connections on them,” said Rick Maxwell, director of engineering for the general industry and automotive segment.

Maxwell’s colleague John Tuohy, executive director of global accounts, said FANUC also has a number of customers interested in semi-autonomous lift assist.

Some robotic arms, like this one from FANUC, can be mounted on an automatic guided vehicle for more flexibility.

“In a form of collaboration, FANUC has the ability to adapt any of our robots into a lift assistance device similar to what one may see with a counterbalance or lift assist device in a factory today,” Tuohy said. “An operator manually manipulates the robot into the desired position, finishes the task, and sends the robot back to pick another part autonomously.”

Tom Fischer, director of operations for RobotWorx, Marion, Ohio, a company that sells and integrates ABB, FANUC, Kuka and Motoman robots into work cells, said advancements in Ethernet communication vs. analog setups have made it a lot easier to use multiple functions (like interacting with other robots, human-machine interfaces and push-button operation stations) of the robot at the same time.

“You can pass multiple signals at once instead of having to wire up each signal individually,” he said. “It’s just a simple plug and then setting up your Ethernet I/O.”

There’s also a human factor that’s making installation of robots easier, Fischer said. “I think we’re getting to a generation that better understands electronics, and through their experience with video games they’re more adept at controlling things with a keyboard (or a robotic teach pendant) vs. directly,” Fischer said. “They can apply that experience to robotics.”

At MC Machinery Systems Inc., downstream robotics is the next big thing. The Mitsubishi Corp. subsidiary is based in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, and sells wire EDMs, milling machines and laser cutters, and integrates them into automated lines.

“You take a part, you pick it, you stack it properly and it moves to a place where robotics can move it to a separate location,” said Jason LeGrand, automation specialist. “Maybe it moves through a time saver machine or a flattener or a press brake. That’s the next big thing and we are literally having meetings with integrators to find out what their requirements are to make this happen.”

Facilitating downstream robotics is Mitsubishi’s acqui-sition in 2018 of Astes4, a Swiss company that makes the Astes4Sort, a flexible manufacturing system designed for sorting.

“They are absolutely, without question, on the cutting edge of automated part sorting off of an industrial laser,” LeGrand said. “Their function is the next step where we need to take our laser automation. The Astes4Sort takes the finished parts that come out and stacks them however it’s told to do so; that, in and of itself, becomes very attractive for end users.”

The parts are stacked and palletized, ready for the next step in the manufacturing process. “That makes it much easier to integrate a robotic operation on the back end because we know there’s a stack of like parts, one on top of the other, in the same orientation,” LeGrand said. “That’s the first step to allowing a robot to take it from there and go to the next operation without having to have a more expensive vision system or something of that nature.”

Are Robot Prices Flattening?

Custom-built RobotWorx work cells are pre-engineered and then configured to customer specifications. (Provided by RobotWorx)

Historically, robots have gotten cheaper, but according to anecdotal information prices have flattened while value has risen.

Over the past 30 years, the average price of an industrial robot has fallen by half, according to global management consultant McKinsey & Co. The average selling price of industrial robots decreased from $63,000 in 2009 to $45,000 in 2018, according to

The website of RobotWorx, which sells new and reconditioned robots, reports that new industrial robotics, complete with controllers and teach pendants, cost from $50,000-$80,000. Typically, reconditioned robots cost half as much as new robots, according to RobotWorx.

In the recent past, the price of robots really hasn’t decreased but robotics companies have added more functionality, said RobotWorx’s Fischer.

One example of improved functionality is in the human-machine interface, he said. “In the past, you would have to wire up a secondary accessory to use as an HMI,” he said. “Now, companies like FANUC are adding that into their software so it can be run off their pendant.”

Another example of added functionality can be seen in collaborative robots, he said. “Their biggest use is in machine tending, that’s the hot one right now,” he said. “You’re able to have an operator in the work cell with the robot working side-by-side.”

FANUC’s Maxwell agreed with the functionality aspect. Just as in the computer industry, where you may not necessarily pay less for a laptop but are getting more for your money, when you pay the same price for a robot you’re getting significantly more functionality out of it. Robots today are faster, have more computing capacity, more processing power, and/or a higher payload, he said.

MC Machinery’s LeGrand also agreed. “[Robots are] better suited to a wider variety of applications,” he said. “As a result, manufacturers are using them for more. What’s happening is that manufacturers are taking a stack of parts that are cut well and they’re being delivered to a place where robots can access them.

“Now manufacturers are saying ‘What can I do from this point with a robot to streamline the operation and give it a repeatable cycle time so that we can effectively plan production,’ and so on,” he continued.

Use Your Hands

This standard FANUC robot uses safety sensors to create a collaborative environment, allowing a person in the work cell to utilize the robot as a lift assist. (Provided by FANUC)

Once manufacturers have identified what robots can do to make operations more efficient and installed them on their plant floor, those manufacturers can take advantage of more intuitive and user-friendly software to program them.

“There’s been a tremendous effort throughout our company as well as throughout the entire industry to make the use and programming of automation more intuitive with things like hand guiding, menu programs, that sort of thing,” said Maxwell. “What you’ll find is a lot of the manufacturers, and FANUC in particular, have basic, easy-to-use, menu-driven options. Our iHMI will walk you through how to generate programs. It’s graphical, and really quite simple.”

Once the robot is programmed and working, robotics companies have made it easier to migrate from basic programming to more complicated tasks to integrate the increased functionality of the robot, depending on the job at hand, Maxwell said.

Robot makers like FANUC and ABB have also added hand guidance for programming. For a pick-and-place operation, the operator teaches the robot a position by gripping a handle and dragging the end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) to where a part is, then dragging the EOAT to a clear position, then dragging it over to a box. The old way of teaching the same task would be to use the robot’s teach pendant and push various buttons for the X, Y, and Z axes to get the robot in position.

“Now you’re ready to run,” Maxwell said. “In those three or four steps, you’ve taught the robot what to do. So, it’s much more intuitive, and much easier to use.”

ABB’s YuMi, a dual-armed robot fully integrated with vision, vacuum gripping, two types of mechanical gripping, and force control, can also be programmed with hand guidance. “It’s like teaching your child how to ride a bike,” Morgan said.

Common applications for YuMi are material handling, assembly, packaging, and food production. “When you take a YuMi out of the box, it’s ready to go,” said Morgan. “It has two arms, so one can be a fixture to hold a part and the other can be a working hand. You don’t need a conveyor, you don’t need a pallet, you don’t need a fixture.”

No True Lights-Out Situations?

Facilitating downstream robotics for Mitsubishi’s laser cutting machines is the company’s acquisition of Astes4, a Swiss company that makes the Astes4Sort (shown above), a FMS designed for automated sorting. (Provided by MC Machinery)

The use of lights-out manufacturing has been hampered by parts handling and logistics issues, but detailed planning, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), and features still in development, such as artificial intelligence (AI), hold promise to overcome them. Then again, complete lights out may not be the answer, said one manufacturer.

For anyone who has any kind of automation, lights out is the goal, said LeGrand. In his company’s work cells, the idea is to keep the laser on as much as possible.

“Everybody’s moving toward it,” he said. “In years past, with automation systems and, more importantly, the programming techniques and the machine configurations, they weren’t quite set up for real lights out. There were a lot of part tip-ups and things that would stop the machine from running. We’ve all learned from our mistakes.”

LeGrand said lights out can require tradeoffs, though, especially if operators are doing dynamic nesting where every nest is unique. This is common especially in contract shops.

“And in a lot of job shop, situations they believe are lights out do not apply to them,” he said. “They can do it, however—they just have to approach the nesting, the programming, everything a little differently. They have to use a different set of parameters to cut.”

It may not be the fastest way to cut, but slow and steady wins the race in lights out, LeGrand said.

“It has to move consistently without stopping. So maybe the part spacing gets a little bit bigger, maybe the tapping to keep the parts from tipping up becomes a little more aggressive.”

As a result, his customers may end up with two different programs for machines from MC Machinery; one for lights out, and one for manned operations.

FANUC’s Maxwell agreed that lights out is the future and remains a goal for several of his customers. “We have seen relatively good success for running very long periods of time,” he said. “Maybe a shift, maybe a shift and a half, but throughout the manufacturing process there are still areas where they need to come in and do certain things. Where it’s been successful is usually third shift, second to third shift.”

That’s because lights-out operations aren’t dependent on just the automation, but also on other machines and processes, such as material handling. Logistics are important, he said, and if they’re not planned well, material shortages can crop up.

Maxwell’s advice to anyone intent on unmanned operations is to first analyze their operations and break them down into discrete steps. Then, consider what could go wrong within each step and determine how that problem could be solved without an operator.

A RobotWorx technician disassembles a robot to clean, inspect and fix its gears. (Provided by RobotWorx)

Having some workers on hand will always be necessary, said RobotWorx’s Fischer. “Lights out is kind of a misnomer for production,” he said. “There’s really not a true lights-out production situation. You always have some support. But companies are going to skeleton crew automation.”

At this point, it’s still necessary to keep essential people to support the line, he said; not necessarily operators but maintenance techs and robot techs for support in case something breaks down or needs repair.

“What’s enabling the trend toward lights-out operations is the use of robots for machine tending and material handling,” Fischer said. “The future is AI and the IIoT.”

The IIoT allows alerts to be sent to a remote location for a worker to monitor and intervene in the event of a problem by scheduling maintenance and would enable him to keep track of production numbers. AI is more predictive and allows a robot to initiate and make adjustments on its own.

Robotics AI is in development, and not yet available in any robot, Fischer said. “All the OEMs are working on it as R&D projects, but none of it exists yet,” he said. “Maybe we’ll see it in the next five to 10 years.”

Another big issue holding back true lights out is parts quality, Fischer said.

“If you’re doing an assembly process, a welding process, unless your part quality is spot-on you run into issues that only a person can identify from a quality output or a repair and maintenance perspective,” he said. Automotive manufacturers must have visual inspection of safety welds to ensure the welds are properly located and defect-free. A camera is too limited to do the inspection, he added.

ABB’s Morgan has turned his focus away from lights out toward Industry 4.0. “You know, we’ve been in the robot business for decades now, and I would say the term ‘lights-out production’ was almost viewed as the Holy Grail of automated manufacturing,” he said. “People thought about once you get your process and your business to that level, you have arrived.”

While others focus on lights out, ABB has set its sights instead on the factory of the future and Industry 4.0, with a flexible, agile manufacturing facility that can operate in low-mix, high-volume as well as high-mix, low-volume work.

“If you look at traditional high-volume products like cellular phones, just look at how many colors and memory configurations you can buy, for example, a Samsung Android phone in today,” Morgan said. “That’s what we’re seeing today in manufacturing.”

Brand new is the integrated ecosystem where the entire automation configuration is integrated into customer needs like fast delivery. For example, Morgan said, a contact lens maker may produce billions of soft contact lenses, but now it has an e-fulfillment operation in the plant with integrated delivery and logistics companies like FedEx on-site.

“We’re really seeing a big focus toward whatever you spend your money on as a manufacturer, it has to be reliable and available with a huge focus on overall equipment efficiency,” Morgan said. “The world class OEE number before of 80-85% is now a very low bar and to be world class today, they’re starting with 90%. It’s about efficiency at every level. That means a collaborative robot working alongside an operator in a manufacturing environment, and it’s all digitally connected.”

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