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Craig Tomita


Rundown on Manufacturing Robotics, Part 2

Considerations for implementing an industrial robot system

Published: Wednesday, December 2, 2020 - 13:03

Are the days of standard industrial robots numbered? Absolutely not. In part one of this series, we looked at the unique attribute of cobots. In this article, we’ll see how industrial robots do what they’re designed to do extremely well—high speed, high repeatability, heavy payloads, and more. There are many reasons why industrial robots are here to stay.

True, they can be dangerous, which is why they are behind guarding to protect workers from injury. But it’s also important to note that most small and medium-sized manufacturers don’t have applications that require all capabilities that industrial robots have to offer: large quantities of the same product, high speed, and heavy payloads. In fact, with limited available floor space, many small and medium-sized manufacturers probably couldn’t accommodate a standard industrial robot in the first place. But a cobot is more an extension of its human workers. They’re not a replacement for standard industrial robots but rather an exciting subset of industrial robots that is augmentative and a door-opener for the small and medium-sized manufacturer.

The devil is in the details, but it is getting easier

However, standard industrial robots and cobots are only part of the solution. Think of them only as the mechanism that gets something to the place where the work must be done. That thing that actually does something and which is attached to the end of the robot arm is called an “end-effector.” A gripper is an example of an end-effector and is the implement that actually performs the needed operation. Examples of other types of end-effectors include automatic screwdrivers, automatic drills, dispensing heads for adhesives or paint, soldering heads, and waterjet cutting heads. Not so bad, right?

Well, complicating the choice is that not only are there quite a few manufacturers of these end-effectors, but there also are different types available to address different usage needs. For example, it’s common to use a robot for an application called “pick and place,” where the robot, with some type of gripper end-effector, picks up something from one location and places it somewhere else. Within the category of grippers alone there’s a wide variety to choose from: vacuum grippers, parallel grippers, and other variants. Within the category of parallel grippers, there are pneumatic and electromechanical types. There are also options: How many “fingers” on the gripper? Does the gripper require adjustable force sensing?

Without going any further, you can see that quite a few things must be considered to make the right choice. However, having said this, I can unequivocally add that it has gotten easier. Not so long ago, manufacturers of automation components and industrial robots designed and manufactured their products in a vacuum, with only minimal conscious effort made toward standardization, commonality, or compatibility. For industrial robots, no common programming language existed, and each manufacturer used a proprietary language.

In the not-so-distant past, simply mounting an end-effector to a robot often required the user to manufacture a custom mounting plate, and that was just to get the end-effector mounted to the machine. Achieving communication so the robot could actuate the end-effector was similarly not very straightforward and required manufacturers to hire someone to do this for them.

Nowadays, the mountings are standardized to ISO 11593:1996—“Manipulating industrial robots.” Many manufacturers of end-effectors have also made their products compatible with the major robot and cobot brands, both in terms of communications and connectivity as well as operation. They are very much in line with the plug-and-play functionality we’re beginning to expect from consumer electronics. In addition, cobot manufacturers are offering turnkey systems with grippers and other end-effectors already integral to the robot for an out-of-the-box solution.

Machine vision

In some instances, the starting or ending point of the motion provided by an industrial robot or a cobot is not the same point every time. An example might be loose products coming down a belt conveyor that must be picked up and put into a box or boxes. If that’s the case, you might need to consider machine vision.

A version of machine vision that almost everyone has seen and has at least some familiarity with are the cameras put in place to monitor intersections. It’s basically a camera device along with mathematical algorithms that allow computers (or the robot or cobot) to see and take in information from the outside world.

So how might machine vision be of use to the small and medium-sized manufacturer? It can be used in four major application categories: guidance, inspection, gauging, and identification (GIGI).

An example of guiding a robot is a downward-facing camera looking at a moving conveyor. As a part enters the field of view, the machine vision system sends the part’s positional data to a robot so the part can be picked up by the robot. Gone are the days when the pick-up point had to be the same place all the time, or the conveyor had to stop momentarily. Parts can be picked up while in motion and on the fly.

Machine vision can be used to check parts. Are all of the screws that must be in your product present? Is a label on straight or within tolerances set by the user? Is the label the correct color?

Machine vision can be used to gauge multiple dimensions on a part in milliseconds.

Machine vision can have a wide variety of codes such as barcodes and QR codes. This can be handy when you have many different products, and you want to make sure that the right label goes with the right part or product. Machine vision can also verify what is written (optical character verification, or OCV) or read what is written (optical character recognition, or OCR). For example, does the label being read reflect the correct date and lot code?

Environmental considerations

Is your manufacturing environment dusty or oily? Full of fine wood dust or metal shavings? Are there flammable vapors present? Will your robot need to be washed down? Do you need a cover for your robot because you don’t want things getting into your robot’s mechanism? Or do you need to prevent anything from inside your robot (e.g., grease, oil, particulates) from getting outside and possibly into your product? Is the environment high heat or low temperature? Will the robot system be situated close to a source of electromagnetic interference or noise that could adversely affect and interfere with the system’s operation?

System integrators

Just a few years ago, it would be almost unheard of for a small or medium-sized manufacturer without prior experience or technical background to take on researching, buying the components, and putting together an in-house automated system. The reason why some people even consider trying to do this themselves is the historically high cost of making all of these disparate components work together in a functional automated system.

The wizard that made this all work is known as the system integrator. If you think of an iceberg, the component cost of the equipment is the part that you see above the ocean. The cost of making everything work is the additional and significantly larger part that is below the surface.

Consequently, when talking about the cost of implementing automation, it’s mostly hardware that is talked about. The system integration effort to make everything work is the much higher cost that, when added to the cost of the hardware, often makes projects out of reach of most small and medium-sized manufacturers.

I use the wizard analogy because those manufacturers that moved forward often didn’t know much about how the system worked, but it worked all the way up until the point where it didn’t. Once engaged, manufacturers without in-house technical abilities were often committed to continuing relationships with their system integrators because even making small or minute changes often required programmatic changes to software.

Fortunately, those days are changing. The good news is that the level of dependence for engaging the services of a system integrator is greatly reduced. Why? Because robot companies, and especially the newer cobots, represent newer technology that is designed with ease of use in mind. Many small and medium-sized manufacturers are realizing that this is something that they could realistically handle on their own, especially if they engage the services of a system integrator the first time around.

Is a system integrator necessary?

In general, and based on my own experience, I think it’s prudent to engage the services of a system integrator, primarily because time is money. In comparison to what it used to cost, the amount of system integrator services is much lower than what it was previously. What’s more, a system integrator can help you wade through the myriad choices by simply answering a few questions, especially during your first robotic implementation. My advice is to engage a system integrator to put together and set up your first system with you, not for you. Don’t get the fish handed to you; learn how to fish. Stay involved. Watch, learn, ask questions. I think you’ll find that in the end, you’ll feel comfortable taking on more of the responsibility the second time around or even developing your next system on your own.

Helping to pay for automation

Please be aware that there are tax deductions available from the federal government to help offset the cost of purchasing capital equipment such as factory automation and industrial robots. Essentially, Section 179 of the IRS tax code allows businesses to deduct the full purchase price of qualifying equipment and software purchased or financed during the tax year. That means if you buy (or lease) a piece of qualifying equipment, you can deduct the full purchase price from your gross income. It’s an incentive created by the U.S. government to encourage businesses to buy equipment and invest in themselves. Contact your accountant or CPA for more details.

How can CMTC assist?

For most small and medium-sized companies without any prior experience in automation, I think the best course of action is to engage a professional rather than going it alone. Doing so will ensure that your first foray into automation is a successful one and that whatever solution, your implementation can start benefiting your company as quickly as possible.

The next questions of course are, “Which professional is the right one for me and my particular need? How do I choose? What should be my criteria or basis be for selection? Where can I go to get an unbiased opinion from a trusted advisor, with no vested interest, to provide recommendations on direction and specific solutions providers? Who is brand neutral and can help me understand my local options?” There is no, shall I say, Craigslist per se for automation. But the California Manufacturing Technology Consultancy (CMTC) has the ability to provide counsel and offers clear options on which to base and make an informed business decision.

First published on the CMTC website.


About The Author

Craig Tomita’s picture

Craig Tomita

With more than 30 years of experience in almost all aspects of automation sales, Craig Tomita is a client advisor at California Manufacturing Technology Consulting (CMTC).