Common Sense Robotics
There are many reasons manufacturers consider integrating automation into their processes. One of the first questions that is asked around the table is “Does the ROI on this investment make it all worthwhile?”
Why are we doing this?
There can be multiple drivers in any capital project and this is especially true for automation. Getting to the bottom of the customer’s needs and expectations at the outset is the most important step to starting off on the right foot and focusing the solution in the right direction.
Foremost, work to understand the customer’s current process, their expectations for a solution and the human interaction upon completion of the project. Are they trying to eliminate ergonomic or safety issues? For example, are there repetitive tasks or heavy parts that could be causing injury or safety concerns? Are they trying to reduce/eliminate manpower to improve efficiency and reduce costs? Are they attempting to improve consistency in quality results or production rates?
Why a robot and not some other form of automation?
Capital equipment is typically purchased and then depreciated year after year, often long after their usability has become irrelevant. A piece of automation may be used for a single project and never used again.
The flexibility of a robot versus a fixed piece of automation is one of the main drivers manufacturers will invest in robotics. Because of their flexible nature, there are fewer considerations in up front engineering with robots. They can easily adapt to changes in projects or in the scope of a project. Their programmability allows them to pivot to a new line, different location and even a new task. For example, in automotive assembly where models are ever changing, and the parts changing, the robot can be reprogrammed to new part needs. A robot’s redeployability as a capital equipment asset is a very appealing characteristic for the accountants and investors.
How do you reduce risk?
There are lots of proactive steps that can be taken to reduce project risk, both on the side of the manufacturer and the customer. Identifying risks upfront will go a long way to provide a safer solution that meets the customer’s specifications. The discovery and specification phase should ask questions and clearly identify the elements that are priorities for the customer:
• What are you going to do with the robot and what is the required?
• What cycle time and production rates do you require?
• What are the payload and reach requirements
• If assembly, what accuracy is required?
Today’s technologies like risk assessment tools and software for modelling concepts and layouts can do things like simulate and verify robot moves and paths.
If a customer requires a part of a solution that hasn’t been in your repertoire , there could be a place for a reduced level feasibility study. Maybe certain stations have a higher risk because the way we’re proposing is new to both of us. If they’re looking at purchasing multiple stations, that’s when it makes sense to create a prototype that will identify any issues first. Finding problems in engineering is always less costly than finding it in debugging or worse after installation!
How do you decide on a robot manufacturer?
Most of the large robot manufacturers do a good job providing robots for all the basic applications. A customer may already have a brand preference because they’ve done research or they have a factory full of a particular brand. It’s important to pay attention to customer experience. Often they want to use the same brand because they know how it works, how to program it, how to debug etc. Even in this case it’s important to emphasize training, as companies tend to short change at this step.
When choosing a robot, customers will also consider the availability of accessories.
2d vision has become very robust and 3d vision is continually improving. Most brands have common industrial communication and IO protocols in addition to End of Arm Tooling solutions. Although many custom EOAT are still being fabricated, standard, off the shelf components are great for spares and cut down on design costs.
How important is service and support?
Your automation system and robotics are a significant investment, so the service and support you’re going to get if something’s not working is of prime importance. When your robot or conveyance is down it’s costing you money. Make sure that training, maintenance, and support are more than a detail for your automation suppliers.