Manufacturers in every industry are investing in robotic automation. Companies in food and consumer goods, electronics, metal processing and the automotive sector are using robots to improve productivity and reduce costs. However, just automating existing processes may not be enough to stay competitive in international markets. What’s needed is a complete rethink of what happens now, coupled with the imaginative application of emerging robotic innovations.
Automation Is Growing
The Robotic Industries Association (RIA) reports that robot sales in the first quarter of 2017 grew by 32 percent since the first quarter of 2016. Leading the charge are applications in welding (both arc and spot), coating and dispensing. Also, there’s a growing use of robotic automation being put to work in handling, machining tending, assembly and packaging operations. Companies that aren’t adopting robotic automation today are missing the benefits of higher quality, increased capacity and a safer workplace for their employees.
Robotic Technology Is Advancing
Industrial automation is a fast-developing field, and a host of robotic innovations have appeared in the last few years. Spider-like Delta robots, 2-D and 3-D vision guidance, and force sensing are examples of technologies that increase speeds and reduce the need for expensive part fixturing. Collaborative robots can operate without cages, saving space and moving in concert with human workers. In addition, compliant grippers that can grasp irregular and unpredictable shapes, such as produce or mixed parts, are enabling automation of tasks previously only suitable for human hands.
The coming years will see new robotic technologies for gauging and inspection, robotic 3-D printing and Cloud-based approaches to improving utilization and uptime. Two more robotic innovations to watch for are the recently introduced ZDT and FIELD from FANUC.
Zero Downtime Technology (ZDT) is a Cloud-based approach to improving Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE). With ZDT, robots send status information via Ethernet to a remote server. Here, data-mining software monitors operating parameters and detects trends. If a component such as a motor or bearing starts showing signs of wear, the system flags a need for replacement before problems develop. This prevents unplanned maintenance and repair work.
FANUC Intelligent Edge Link and Drive (FIELD) goes even further. This Industry 4.0 technology, consisting of hardware and software[Office2] , is a way for FANUC robots to communicate with machine tools, sensors and peripherals distributed throughout a factory. Shared information may include operating status, work queues, tool conditions, speeds, temperatures and more — increasing flexibility, accelerating output and boosting quality. To stimulate further innovation, FANUC has designed FIELD as an open platform so robot users and integrators are free to develop their own novel solutions to manufacturing challenges.
Evolution and Innovation
Implementing new robotic technology may seem intimidating for manufacturers unfamiliar with robots. To avoid technical hurdles on the road from project conception to completion, it pays to partner with an experienced robotic integrator. We has extensive robotics experience and can guide companies through the installation process to ensure a project is successful and minimally disruptive.
When the time comes to add a new cell, there’s a temptation to just apply the lessons learned. Consider this the evolutionary approach. It’s safe but it’s not going to yield a step-change in productivity or help use methods that competitors can’t match. Gaining competitive advantage demands new technologies used in new ways.
Automation is an opportunity to improve operations, and that’s especially true with the robotic innovations being introduced now. Rather than a short-sighted decision to insert a robot into an existing process, it’s better to start with the ultimate goal to achieve, then work back to define the full automation solution that will lead to that goal the most directly and cost effectively. It’s important to question current processes and be open to new ways of performing those operations. For example, vision guidance may eliminate part fixturing, and force sensing may enable precision assembly.
Sometimes it takes another pair of eyes from outside your organization to spot opportunities, and that’s where an experienced integrator can help. Steeped in automation technology and knowledgeable about the latest robotic innovations, challenges assumptions and presents new ideas — all with the goal of helping to improve operations and lower costs.
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If you’re looking for innovative solutions to your manufacturing challenges, contact us today. We’ll help you take a step forward with flexible robotic automation.