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Adaptive Robots: BFFs for Small-Batch Automation

David Suica
By David Suica President, Fastems LLC

Manufacturing engineers, information technologists, and “smart” robots in flexible manufacturing cells are working ever more closely in manufacturing companies around the world. They are the pillars of a sound effort to fully automate even small order batches—with frequent changeovers—completely untended.

We of a certain age can remember when there were no IT departments at small to mid-size manufacturing companies. All that changed, of course, with the proliferation of computer systems on the “business side” of the operation and certainly as they became more entrenched in shop floor functions as well. Turns out many of us needed not just one IT person but several. Today, it’s common for the IT department to interact more frequently with the manufacturing engineering (ME) department as systems such as ERPs, MESs, and MOMs are coming on board and integrating with cell controls. Cell controls, in turn, communicate with the various machinery and work handling control systems in the cell, including the new kid in town—the adaptive robot.

At our company, we refer to adaptive robots as those that can respond to signals from the ERP and cell control—in our case, the MMS (Manufacturing Management Software). In other words, adaptive robots can do variable tasks on the fly, based upon need, as dictated by the upper hierarchal computer system and software. This is quite different than the usual concept of a single application robot, such as in a welding unit, or a pick-and-place, or load/unload type of robot in an FMS or dedicated robot cell. This agile category of robots adapts to changing demands and schedules automatically. So now, we can robotize a machine or process that is variable, as well as the other elements that are required for that changeover, such as chuck jaws and cutting tools.

In the typical historical scenario, IT—which manages the ERP—fed the order and schedule information to the ME department. Then an engineer would go to the shop floor and program the robot to make the next order, set it on auto-load, and the robot would do its work. But the robot didn’t know what it had to do next until the engineer came back and provided new directions.

In today’s emerging scenario, we have a process in which IT and ME jointly pull together the requirements for the next several orders so that the human interface to relay the workpiece changes or the schedule adjustments are all done automatically. The smart, agile, adaptive robot then adjusts what it has to do also, just when it needs to, as directed by the higher-level system. And based on the directive, the robot also knows which chuck jaws to put in the turning center, what type of gripper it needs to put on its “hand,” and what raw material needs to be loaded and available to the machine tool to make the part.

A Boost for Lights Out

This capability is a boon to untended, lights-out manufacturing of small batches, which has been a challenge to fully automate. In a sense, this changes everything. There’s still planning, of course, to ensure that everything the robot will need is in place for the next shift. However, we’re no longer confined to making more parts than we need when we don’t need them. This new concept reduces WIP (work in process), improves delivery times, reduces inventory and warehousing space, and allows for more efficient use of labor.

Imagine what this approach will do for industries such as automotive. The OEM gets order pings from dealers all over the country and those vehicles can get in the manufacturing queue much faster. They won’t have to wait for 50 orders of the same model before they can switch over the lines. In other words, adaptive robots are the new “BFF” for manufacturers.

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