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Let Cobots Take on the Dull, Dirty and Repetitive Jobs

Alan Hiken
By Alan Hiken COO, Kane Robotics
Kane Robotics solutions, such as the GRIT-XL shown here, help enhance efficiency and productivity.

For composites manufacturing teams, sanding helicopter blades, commercial aircraft interior panels or other precision parts is tedious, dirty and repetitive work. The job is tough on employees and one that hard-to-find labor is not eager to take or keep.

However, these types of mundane sanding, grinding and finishing tasks can now be delegated to collaborative robots (cobots) that work alongside humans, freeing up teams to get on with the business of manufacturing.

Not only do cobots perform the time-consuming tasks that humans don’t want to do, but they are also relatively low-cost, lightweight and quickly operational—unlike traditional automation systems with expensive setup requirements.

Cobots for Material Removal

Cobots are widely used to weld or palletize, but they have only recently been employed in sanding, grinding and finishing applications. These tasks are particularly important for industries such as aerospace and defense which rely on high-performance composites for specialized items such as aircraft or spacecraft parts.

Usually, composites fabricated from fiber-reinforced epoxies and thermoplastics must be sanded, buffed or polished to be bonded with other materials, painted or otherwise finished. Cobots are adept at performing this tedious, repetitive and sometimes dangerous work.

There are many advantages in using cobots in composites manufacturing.

Improved Productivity

Some manufacturers report a 50%-80% productivity improvement by using cobots. A 12-hour sanding job can turn into 3.5 hours when done by a cobot. Moreover, cobot sanding is precise and uniform, minimizing the need for further detail work before starting second-phase operations.

Reducing Health Risks

Cobots reduce health risks on manufacturing shop floors. Robots don’t suffer repetitive motion injuries to shoulders, elbows and wrists, nor can they develop respiratory illnesses from airborne particles released during sanding and grinding. In short, cobots help manufacturers keep their people—and keep them healthy.

Filling Job Vacancies

With the United States manufacturing sector’s contraction, companies are having difficulty attracting new workers, especially for taxing work like sanding. Cobots can help fill those roles. They also lessen the need to replace retiring workers as the manufacturing workforce ages. And in the current environment, where layoffs are becoming more prevalent, a cobot can allow veteran workers to be redeployed to more skilled positions.

The GRIT ST cobot from Kane Robotics is an automated sanding, grinding and finishing solution for smaller products.

These advantages are convincing manufacturers of all sorts to adopt cobots for material removal applications.

Kane Robotics launched its first cobot in 2019. The GRIT helps aerospace and other manufacturers making composite structures integrate cobots into their shop floors to perform jobs such as:

  • Sanding primer from aircraft interior components.
  • Removing coating and sanding surfaces for paint preparation or repairs on military helicopter main rotor blades.
  • Polishing fighter jet canopies after thermoforming to remove orange peel and achieve optical clarity.

3 Simple Steps to Incorporate Cobots

Integrating robotics into manufacturing doesn’t have to be a time-consuming or expensive undertaking. A good rule of thumb when incorporating cobots into composites manufacturing processes is: don’t try to do too much. Employ cobots for specific, laborious tasks and let people do the rest.

  1. Follow the 80/20 rule. Cobots are not equal partners with their human counterparts. Let cobots do 80% of the polishing, grinding, sanding or other labor-intensive work, and have humans do the 20% of the job that requires more complex skills.

  2. Don’t buy more robots than you need. Sure, robots can complete an entire job, but holistic robotic systems require exponentially more time and money to install and operate. Conversely, cobots are budget friendly and can be up and running in days or weeks rather than months or years.

  3. Start small. Cobots are small and mobile, plug into 110V electrical outlets and are relatively inexpensive, making them accessible even for small companies. Investing in just one cobot system can mean a marked improvement in productivity. Companies implementing systems like Kane Robotics’ GRIT typically recoup their investment in three to six months.

When it comes to automation in composites manufacturing, a little can go a long way. Start with a cobot that can help with monotonous and dangerous work, and then evaluate the results. You will likely find that cobots provide a helpful solution for sanding, grinding or other dull and dirty tasks and allow your teams to focus on what they do best—operations that require higher-order reasoning and decision making.

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