The Struggle with Robotic Automation
If you work for a manufacturer, chances are your company falls into one of three categories when it comes to Robotic Automation:
- You are successfully using robotics in a way that is benefiting your bottom line
- You have tried to robotics, but for some reason it ended up failing
- You know you should be using it somewhere, but have been unsure where or how to get started
If you fall into one of the last two categories, my goal is help move up to the first. If you are in the first category by happenstance, I hope to help you stay there on future automation projects.
Robots in the Media Spotlight
As you likely have seen in the news as of late, Robotic Automation is creating a lot of buzz. Whether it is the stories about new collaborative technologies, or how they are going to destroy manufacturing jobs in the US, you can’t turn around without seeing another story featuring robotics.
As someone who makes their living in the world of automation and robotics, you would think that I would be ecstatic about this; after all, this press has to be a good thing for the industry doesn’t it? Although, I am excited that more people are becoming familiar with the concept of using robotics in manufacturing, what we are actually seeing is a greater divide in where and how to apply this technology successfully.
First off, to get a feel for where we really are with the use of robots in manufacturing, the following are a couple of interesting facts that may – or may not – lend credence to any world domination plans the robots may have (joking!).
- In 2011, approximately 166,000 Industrial Robots were sold world wide up 38% over previous year. Another 160,00 sold in 2012.
- Last year, the world population of Industrial Robots grew to approximately 1.8 million, or roughly the population of Nebraska.
- For 2012, there was an estimated 199,693 Industrial Robots in use in the United States. This is about 166 robots per 10,000 Manufacturing Jobs (from the IFR and Bureau of Labor and Statistic)
For me, when I look at these numbers, I see industrial robotics still very much in it’s infancy here in the US and worldwide. For America, I am a firm believer that at the end of the day, the more profitable we can make manufacturing in the US, the more manufacturing related jobs will be be created. And robotic automation can play a major role in job creation.
So where do we start? There a few things that we try focus on when we are working with a customer on Robotic Automation opportunity. For our purpose in this discussion, we will call them:
“Five Keys for Implementing Robotic Automation”
- Identifying the Need
- Where to Automate First
- Understanding the True Cost of Ownership
- Who Takes Responsibility
- Where to Go for Help
First Key – Identifying the Need
This may seem fairly basic, but you have to ask yourself “why do I want to use a robot?”
There are certainly valid reasons you should consider robotics for the right application, but there are many more reasons you shouldn’t consider it for the wrong application. Let me ask a question: “Why does the average person buy a hand tool such as a drill?”
Is it because they like the idea of owning a tool, or is that they need what the tool can provide? For most, it is the solution, or end result that they are buying. A robot is no different. It is a tool that, when applied properly, provides a benefit that outweighs its cost of ownership. Although the price of robotics hardware has come down, and there have been some new advances in collaborative systems that can lower your cost of ownership even further,installing and supporting a robotic solution is too complex, costly, and time consuming to not have a solid business case to do it.
In that respect, lets look at a few reasons were it may make sense use a robotic solution:
The three D’s: Dull, Dangerous, or Demanding
Consider using an automated robotic solution if your are currently employing a person to do a job that is…
This is your highly repetitive, simple motion type application where there is little-to-no human judgement required. Many times this is a “Pick and Place” type application, such as Machine Tending, where an operator is picking parts up off a cart, loading into a machine to have some process performed, waiting for it to finish, taking it out of that machine, and either putting into another machine or back on another cart. If your employees’ human talents can be used better elsewhere, it may be a good fit for robotic automation.
Simply put, some manufacturing environments just aren’t safe for humans to work in. Take production paint booths. These booths are a great place to put a robot: health risks associated with toxic fumes, the risk of explosions due to nature of the aerosolized solvents, and general hassles of having to work in protective gear that makes a hard job that much more challenging. Whether the job is dangerous due to environmental concerns or due to injury potential, the cost of health risks or injuries is a great reason to look at the potential of using a robot.
Terms like Carpal Tunnel, Work Related Injury (WRI), Repetitive Motion Injury, and Workers Compensation are enough to make an HR Director or Plant Safety Manager tense up. Unfortunately, these terms are used more than ever – and they are costing employers big bucks in lost production, insurance, and medical and legal fees. The good news is many of the stress inducing, repetitive motion jobs can be automated, thus reducing or eliminating predictable physical injuries.
I recently met with a manufacturer who showed me such a process. Due to the weight, size, and motion required, they unofficially admitted that they tried their best not to put any employee over the age of 22 in that particular role due that process’s injury history for older employees. What a tough situation to be in, not to mention one that can lead to all kinds of HR nightmares!
Other Important Factors
Improved Quality Control
An advantage to a robot or a good motion control solution is that it can do the same thing, the same way, over and over again without any slips, trips, or hiccups. Imagine an automotive parts manufacturer that is pre-assembling engines and they have to apply a gasket sealant in an awkward area where it is difficult for human operators to consistently reach.
Add too much sealant and it causes an interference issue. Don’t apply enough and it can cause an engine failure. Most robots are repeatable down to +/- 0.1 mm or better and don’t get cramps in their wrist. Not all industries have to deal with ‘Batch Recalls’, but for those that do, this type of consistency can mean the difference between a profitable year or one that ends in the red.
Sometimes you just need super human speed in order to hit the required production rates. Sounds simple enough doesn’t it? After all, can’t a robot do everything faster than a human? More times than you might think, the answer is actually “No”. When it comes to gross motion, sure, most robots will be able to move faster for longer periods of times than us mere mortals. But, as we will discuss in future segments, there is a lot more to most industrial applications than just gross motion.
For those gross speed applications, a robot could be no-brainer. For the rest, in order to determine if a robot can really improve your production rate (and without eating up the profits with increased costs), there is a magic equation with variables like:
- How much human ‘dexterity and finesse is required?
- The value of the product being produced
- The total cost of ownership for the robot solution
- Just how much gross speed the robot can bring to the table?
When we talk about identifying the need, we are really talking about the identifying the business case for making the investment in a robotic solution. As we will find out, the cost is much more than just the hardware. If your business case does not include more than one of the above, you will likely have a challenge justifying the cost of including a robotic solution in your factory automation plan.
The next key we will be looking at “Where to Automate First”.