When considering automation, the first thing that many people will imagine is a robot. As a result, many of us who work in the design of automated systems find that we receive a lot of questions about robots, some of which suggest an inaccurate understanding of the full capabilities or best applications of robots. At other times, many manufacturers, especially those who are new to automation, may never have even considered integrating a robot because they often think that a robot would be too expensive or inappropriate to their needs, when in fact a robot may be perfect for their purposes.
For manufacturers considering automation, it will be extremely useful to know a few things about the application of robots and how robotics fits into the automation industry before investing in robotics.
What are robots for?
The definition of industrial robots from ISO (the International Organization for Standardization) provides a good overview of the core purpose of industrial robotics. According to the ISO, an industrial robot needs to:
- Be able to perform all of its tasks automatically.
- Be able to be reprogrammed and thereby adjusted for reuse or reapplication.
- Act as a “multipurpose manipulator.”
- Be able to move on at least three axes of motion.
The most common industrial robot is the robotic arm
The robotic arm is likely the most familiar example of a robot for most manufacturers. The term “robotic arm” very generally refers to robots that are articulated, move in a predictable way within 3D space, and carry out movement and placement tasks.
With all of the freedom and range of motion that these robots can achieve, and their easy and evident applicability to the manufacturing process, it’s apparent why so many manufacturers would recognize the value in these machines. When trying to automate part of or all of a system, these kinds of common industrial robots are very useful for their abilities to streamline movements, simplify flow of work, and act very quickly and precisely.
But do you really need one?
Because robotic arms are very common, many manufacturers feel that an automated system must utilize a robot to be effective. In reality, there is a certain set of functions and features that make a system most appropriate for robots.
1.) The size and complexity of the system: The larger the system you have, the more likely it is that you will want a robot that can perform several steps at once. For example, if you were automating a long assembly line with multiple production steps, you could have a robot that will both stack pallets of completed products, and move the stacked pallets to the other side of the room. Because a larger automated system may be complex, it makes sense to simplify as many steps as possible in this way. In addition, the more axes of motion your individual robot has (between three and ten for industrial robots), the more complex and varied movements your individual robot can accomplish, which can be very useful in consolidating steps. Of course, for many manufacturing applications, simplicity is key and three axes of motion are plenty.
2.) The degree to which you will automate: Robots are more likely to be used in bigger factories because industrial robots can carry high price tags, and because larger factories often want to automate to a higher degree. Smaller operations are more likely to use people to perform the same tasks. When automating a process, the manufacturer has a choice as to the degree to which she will make the system entirely automatic as opposed to manual. Because robots are frequently used to compliment larger automation systems, the more automatic the system, the more likely it is robots will be a part of the system. Robots are very easy to program to merge with the software of a larger automated system, which makes them an easy addition at logical junctures in the process.
3.) The level of precision and speed you need: Robots can perform very precise tasks very quickly. In some manufacturing processes, these aspects are critical. For example, in the production of medical syringes, even the smallest imprecision can result in an unusable product. In addition, if a manufacturing process involves inspection or testing, robots offer an easy solution. Whether used in conjunction with a visual inspection system, or used alone to perform functional tests, robots can significantly speed the inspection process.
4.) Robots have applications in smaller automated systems as well: Though larger manufacturers are still more likely to buy robots than smaller manufacturers, there are plenty of instances in which a smaller manufacturer might want to consider robots. In many cases, because robots come as ready-made, easily programmable units, they are often offer simple solutions within any type of automation setup. So, if you are considering automation, your engineer may feel it is best to integrate a robot into your system. In addition, there are now more robots on the market that are targeted specifically at smaller manufacturers, like the Baxter robot, which was designed specifically for ease of use in smaller operations.
5.) How likely is it that your process will change and grow in the future? Because robots can be quickly and easily reprogrammed and adapted for new tasks and processes, having a robot in your system will make it easier should you ever need to change your manufacturing process. For example, if your company produces cell phone bumpers, you may need to change your product and process each time a new phone debuts. If your process uses robots, you can easily adjust the robots to handle and process the new cases of different dimension and character without having to spend lots of money replacing major portions of your system.
Written by Rachel Greenberg of San Diego, California for NIST-MEP's Manufacturing Innovation Blog. Rache writes technical and marketing content for Automation GT. Read here about how engineers decide when to include robots in automation.