COVID-19 has taught manufacturers a valuable lesson: when humans fall ill, machine tools and equipment sit idle. Granted, they already knew it, just as they knew that employees take lunch breaks and vacations, arrive late because their car won’t start, and go work at the shop down the street for fifty cents more an hour. For these reasons, among others, shop owners and managers have long faced pressure to automate; now, in the face of a global pandemic, they are frantic to do so.
“The U.S. has struggled with a skilled labor shortage for years, but reliance on human operators has become especially challenging of late,” said Mark Sumner, vice president of sales and marketing at industrial automation provider Acieta LLC, Waukesha, Wis. “For years we’ve fielded calls from manufacturers saying, ‘I’ve been thinking about automation. Tell me how it might improve our bottom line.’ Since COVID-19, however, that’s changed to, ‘We need robots. How do we get started?’”
There are many reasons for this shift, he said. Consider machine shops and fabricating houses in a world nervous about virus transmission. In these environments, the machine tools are usually far enough away from one another that social distancing won’t be a problem. But what happens at lunchtime, when workers congregate to share stories about their weekend at the lake, or gripe about their favorite sports team’s performance?
And what impact will mandatory mask wearing have on employee morale, never mind plexiglass barriers, temperature checks at the door, and signs reminding people to stay six feet apart? What about the shutdown that must inevitably occur when a coworker tests positive? With any luck, all of this will be temporary. Maybe immunologists will quickly develop a vaccine, and by this time next year, we can dismiss 2020 as an anomaly. But what if a vaccine never comes? And what about the next pandemic? Questions like these give manufacturers pause, and many of them have said, “Enough is enough. Let’s automate wherever possible.”
The good news? Doing so is now easier than ever. Sumner noted that social distancing means there will be more room for positioning robots between coworkers, while Steve Alexander, Acieta’s vice president of operations, added that vision systems and other advanced capabilities are having a positive effect on robot cost and flexibility.
“An increasing number of customers use cameras to locate randomly-placed parts, either on a pallet, on a shelf, or on a conveyor,“ he said. “The robot can determine its orientation and then pick the part up, as well as determine whether a feature exists—a drilled hole, for example, or a barcode—and then make decisions accordingly. This reduces the need for fixturing and its associated expense, while also making robots easier to deploy.”
Acieta’s most popular vision system is FANUC’s iRVision, which Alexander explained is an option on any FANUC robot. Yet he was quick to point out that third-party and OEM cameras are available for practically any brand of robot, whatever its age. The issue of determining how you’re going to use a camera is often the more difficult part of the vision equation.
“There’s definitely some engineering involved,” he said. “You need to establish the correct physical layout, the field of view, the proper lighting, and so forth. And then on the software side, you need to teach the robot, correlating what the camera is seeing and how those images relate to the task at hand. It’s not as simple as just bolting on a camera.”
Someone who knows all about this is Dave Bruce, engineering manager and robot vision expert with FANUC America Corp., Rochester Hills, Mich. He and coworker Greg Buell—a cobot expert and senior engineer for FANUC’s material handling segment—agreed that vision systems are becoming more popular and capable, but cautioned that their use requires some additional homework.
“Vision has come a long way in recent years,” said Bruce. “We’ve had it available on our last three generations of controllers, and for the last two of those, we’ve made a big push into 3D vision (3DV), which uses very fast point cloud-based cameras to map out the robot’s surroundings. We anticipate that both industrial and collaborative robot use will increase greatly over the next few years.”
Another technology is force sensing, a capability that makes robots both safer and more capable. FANUC’s Force Control, for example, is often used in conjunction with the company’s vision products to perform deburring and assembly operations; these tasks become even easier when supported by smart software. “We have another product called Intelligent Deburr,” Buell said. “It allows users to upload a CAD drawing of the part, and the software will generate the best motion path to deburr it. It’s this level of artificial intelligence that helps manufacturers achieve the fastest ROI possible on their automation investment.”
Unless you’re one of those people who fears a future robotic takeover of the human race, deterministic artificial intelligence (AI) is perhaps the most exciting segment of the automation industry. That’s because robots equipped with AI are not only more capable, but far less expensive to operate.
“Fully 40 percent of a robot’s ongoing costs lie in its programming,” said Jason Barton, chief commercial officer for Boston-based Realtime Robotics Inc. “AI can reduce that cost by up to 70 percent. Realtime Robotics accomplishes this by automating the robotic programming process to determine the most efficient way to get from Point A to Point B, and then generating a program accordingly.” What’s more, the system can dynamically modify that program as certain conditions arise, technology not unlike that used by autonomous vehicles to navigate around town.
“Before we had GPS in our cars and phones, drivers would print out detailed directions to unfamiliar places,” said Barton. “But if there was a road closure or heavy traffic, you were in trouble because you didn’t have any way of changing your route on the fly. That’s how conventional programming for robots is today. You have to program every individual waypoint for each of the motions needed for any given robot, and if you have multiple robots working together, you have to program each of them to work together harmoniously. It’s an arduous, time-consuming task, one that we’re able to eliminate.”
Self-programming robots aware of their surroundings will likely be a game-changer, enough so that Realtime Robotics has partnered with a number of robot manufacturers, among them Mitsubishi Electric Automation Inc., Vernon Hills, Illinois. Adam Welch, robotics product manager for Mitsubishi, noted that sophisticated 3D vision systems such as these help ensure that all of the robots within a cell or work area will operate efficiently, spatially aware of where they are currently, and where they plan to be in the future.
“We’re using this technology for a variety of high-density robotic applications, including those in the automotive and food and beverage industries,” Welch said. “Because the system intuitively understands each robot’s roles and responsibilities, it’s able to create a hierarchy, stating that robot number one has priority over robot number two, and so on. It manages even very stringent manufacturing processes quite efficiently, without the need for advanced programming.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean traditional programming systems and safety equipment are going away anytime soon. Ben Sagan, business development manager at Mitsubishi Electric Automation, suggested its MELFA SafePlus solution complements the company’s line of industrial robots by interfacing with a variety of safety equipment. These include area scanners, light curtains, and safety mats, all of which serve to reduce robot speed or limit its motion based on feedback from these accessories.
For those of you thinking, “Great, let’s get rid of those big ugly cages and replace them with systems like these,” not so fast. Like their counterparts throughout the industry, both experts stated that customers should undergo a risk assessment before deploying any robot. “This is true even with collaborative robots,” he added, pointing out that Mitsubishi Electric Automation will be releasing its first cobot—the MELFA ASSISTA—sometime this fall. “It’s critical that manufacturers analyze any robotic application as it relates to the cell layout, the machine tools, the conveyors and any other material handling equipment, and how much human interaction there will be,” Sagan said.
Joe Campbell is fully onboard with the notion of more cobots. The senior manager for strategic marketing and applications development at Universal Robots USA Inc., Ann Arbor, Mich., said manufacturers need to embrace robotics—collaborative or otherwise—as quickly as possible. “Even before the pandemic, the situation was crystal clear,” he said. “At least 500,000 manufacturing jobs were going unfilled. More than 10,000 baby boomers were retiring each day, and 27 percent of the manufacturing workforce was 55 or older. And the last argument in favor of more automation? The willingness of millennials and other young people to enter the trades was at a record low.”
This situation alone has been a steady driver for automation, Campbell noted. Now throw a global pandemic into the mix. As a result, shops of all sizes are beginning to buy cobots and robots, interspersing them with their socially-distanced human workforce in an effort to ramp back up to pre-pandemic levels. With that has come a desire to reshore wherever possible, leveling the low labor cost playing field with smarter, more capable robots.
One example of this is Universal Robots’ ActiNav, an autonomous bin picking system introduced last April. Unlike the bin pickers found in e-commerce warehouses and fulfillment centers that are basically “pick and drop” solutions, ActiNav is what Universal Robots calls “pick and place.” It is said to be accurate enough for CNC machine tending, and smart enough to pick randomly-placed objects out of even very deep bins. Much of this capability is due to another first for the company, a high-resolution vision system supplied by Photoneo Inc., Erlanger, Ky., together with software that Universal Robots developed in-house.
“That’s the real magic behind ActiNav,” Campbell said. “With traditional bin-picking, you have to program all the different scenarios, something that’s practically impossible to do in a bin filled with small metal parts. With ActiNav, you show it the part, the bin, and where you want the parts to go, and the software does the rest. It’s simple enough that you can set up a new part from scratch in two to four hours, something that might otherwise take a couple of months.”
According to Campbell, COVID-19 has finally shown everyone what happens when you allow your manufacturing to go elsewhere. “All it takes is a pandemic or similar disruption and you’re shut down,” he said. “Because of this, companies everywhere want to bring work back in-house, and they want to do it right now. Thanks to the labor shortage, however, the only way to effectively do this is with flexible automation that’s easy to deploy, easy to program and operate, and given the proper safety protocols, can be used alongside human workers. Collaborative robots fit these needs on all counts.”
Joe Chudy, vice president and general manager of ABB Robotics U.S., Auburn Hills, Mich., has also heard the industry’s call for more automation, even though his proposed solution is a bit different. “Our customers tell us that the need to accelerate the adoption of robotics and automation is critical, both to protect the health of their employees and to enhance business continuity,” he said. “Most now want to change the balance of globalization and localization to bring production closer to home, so-called nearshoring, while increasing production flexibility and enhancing supply chain resilience.”
Meeting this need requires intuitive tools that help users make better decisions. One of these is the company’s SafeMove software suite, which Chudy said allows operators greater freedom to collaborate with robots in a limited space and with practically no enclosure, assuming the appropriate safety sensors, laser scanners, and light barriers are in place. It can be used across the entire range of industrial ABB robots, “making every robot a cobot” through configurable electronic motion detection and prevention measures that restrict a robot’s speed, motion, and position when a person comes near.
He noted as well the need for simulation and offline programming software, the company’s RobotStudio among them. The first of these allows users to create, simulate, and test a complete robot installation in a virtual 3D environment without disturbing the actual production line. “This means that new product lines can be installed faster and ramped up to full speed without surprises during commissioning. This is a critical competency for manufacturers, considering today’s mass customization and shorter product life cycles,” he said. “And as with CAM software and CNC machine tools, offline robot programming eliminates the downtime and disruption of the factory floor that occurs with manual programming methods.”
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