by Todd Bowolick
Although humanoid-style robots grab all the media attention these days, the true stars of the automated real world are industrial robots.
Although robots that look and act like humans are still mostly the stuff of fiction, more than a quarter million industrial robots are now helping push North American manufacturing to new levels of productivity.
According to Automation.com, the Robotic Industries Association (RIA) reported that sales of industrial robots set a US record in 2015 with some 31,464 new units, valued at $1.8 billion, ordered. Many of these went to the automotive industry, with the most numerous applications being for coating and dispensing, materials handling, and spot welding.
As the underlying technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, robots are emerging from their traditional caged compounds to take their place working alongside humans. As Shermine Gotfredsen, General Manager of Universal Robots explains in an article on ProcessOnline, this integration is becoming so widespread that human-robot collaboration has coined a new label for the devices: “cobots.”
Their key strengths are the ability to perform repetitive tasks to a high degree of precision — without complaint! In turn, this frees up human time for more complex multi-tasking roles and quality control work.
The result is improved speed and efficiency, higher product quality, and reduced costs. In some cases, Gotfredsen’s article says, robotic activity has been reported as lowering worker idle time by as much as 85%.
The new breed of robots has other advantages too. They’re often small, light, and flexible so that they can be easily moved and reprogrammed for different tasks. Often they’re relatively inexpensive as well, making the cost of entry attainable for smaller manufacturers, with a relatively quick ROI.
Research is also demonstrating that, contrary to popular belief, robots don’t reduce overall employment.
Jeff Burnstein, President of RIA, explains to Automation.com: “The continuing growth in robotics is opening many new job opportunities for people who can program, install, run, and maintain robots. In fact, if you look closer at the jobs discussion, automation is helping to save and create jobs. A lot of companies tell us they wouldn’t be in business without robotics and related automation.”
Not only are they saving jobs but they’re also making them safer, by taking over higher risk activities, eliminating the dangers arising from human performance of repetitive tasks, and employing advanced safety features that enable them to sense dangers and even the proximity of workers.
A strategic plan
Enterprises considering the introduction of robots should have a clear strategic plan. Put simply, you need to know why you want them and how they will benefit your operation.
If you’re thinking of using robots in your process automation, Plant Engineering recommends several questions to consider:
- Exactly which processes might be appropriate for robotic intervention?
- What sort of equipment is available to perform the relevant tasks?
- Can the robots perform collaboratively, and if so should they?
- Will they improve workflow and reduce costs?
- Will they benefit product quality and reduce risks?
- What are the implications for power usage and workspace requirements?
- How will you deal with maintenance and repair requirements?
Priority consideration must be given to safety. Even with the most modern robots, a risk assessment is essential and must take into consideration the performance and safety record of available equipment. Relevant training and emergency procedures should be in place.
For all these reasons, you should start with a consultation from experts who will review your entire process and help you understand how all of your automation components can work better together.