A helping hand2 March 2019
The following article is an edited extract from a white paper by the Robotics Industries Association, written by Tanya M Anandan, contributing editor of Robotics Online. It is on collaborative robotics and their end use applications, with a focus on packaging and consumer goods.
Collaborative robotics, which brings humans and robots together in a shared workspace, continues to be one of the hottest topics in industry. Human-robot collaboration is emerging across multiple sectors of manufacturing, logistics, professional services and the consumer-facing service industries.
The Robotic Industries Association (RIA) has conducted a study of end user applications across a variety of industrial and commercial settings. The study explored end use cases in automotive, aerospace, energy, home appliances, personal and household consumables, life sciences and even a start-up with a novel digital approach to manufacturing. The companies involved discussed their automation strategies and implementation procedures for adopting collaborative robotics, the advantages and limitations of the technologies, workforce preparation and training, and the lessons learned along the way. Due to the sensitive nature of their projects, some study participants have elected to remain anonymous.
Automation for the people
This paper will build upon an RIA study conducted in 2014, when collaborative robotics was still a new concept. Many products on the market today were still in research and development, features were limited, sceptics were rampant, and tried-and-true applications were few and far between. Over the past couple of years, casual curiosity has given way to successful use, with a proven return on investment. Applications that were once limited to simple pick-and-place tasks are now varied, and there is human-robot collaboration in sorting, kitting, packing and palletising, inspection, machine tending, gluing and sealing, assembly, intralogistics and even welding with collaborative robots (cobots).
Nearly all of the major robot manufacturers offer robots specifically designed for collaborative operations. There are three main groups of collaborative robotics: power and force-limiting robots (PFLRs), mobile robots and traditional robots used in collaborative applications.
One particular consumer goods manufacturer that was spoken to said collaborative robotics opens up the opportunity for partial automation. Historically, to automate a production or packaging process, it was an all-or-nothing proposition. You had to fence the entire production cell.
The ability to have humans and robots working together in the same workspace means the company can now automate specific pieces in that process, such as tasks where a human might be prone to repetitive stress injury. With partial automation, you can get improvements in productivity, quality and safety in areas where it makes sense to use a robot, and still take full advantage of the capabilities, skills and creativity of the people working in the same production area. This particular company has 100 cobots currently on-line.
The cost of engineering is significantly lower too, due to the cobots’ ease of integration. Plus, the application is flexible; companies can simply use a pallet jack to pick up one of the cobots and move it to another line as needed. Just like people, automation needs to be flexible and movable. The company is also using cobots for case packing. The cobots are grouping products and then placing them into cases. Taking advantage of the built-in force-sensing capabilities, these robots are able to wiggle products into place to make them fit into the open areas of each case, just like humans would. Again, these are tight production spaces where it’s advantageous to have PFLRs on the job.
The company’s end-of-line palletising and case-packing applications have been in production for over two years, and it says the reaction from their employees has been positive, noting that the robots are doing monotonous tasks that people don’t like to do. They see the robots as more than just a tool or machine.
These types of collaborative applications, using speed and separation monitoring, are less common in tight floor spaces because the minimum safe stopping distances are typically 1.5m, which results in a fairly large footprint incorporating the robot.
Lower-cost options and opportunities
For start-ups and small to medium-sized enterprises, the decision to make a foray into robotic automation has become less intimidating with the arrival of lower-cost PFLRs that are easier to integrate. These smaller enterprises find the PFLRs easy to deploy and redeploy when applications change, and said they ‘sleep better at night’ knowing their employees are safe.
Cooperative robots (cobots) are currently online at Voodoo.
Cost is also a major factor. Voodoo Manufacturing in Brooklyn, New York, has been in business since early 2015, when it spun off from Makerbot. It is 3D printing various types of plastic parts for electrical and mechanical components, fixtures, promotional items and custom products for special events, such as a run of a few thousand toys for Mattel or giveaways for Microsoft for the US Democratic and Republican national conventions.
Voodoo chose a PFLR because it didn’t want to spend a lot of money on an arm that might not fit its needs as the business matures. Voodoo’s co-founder and chief production officer, Jonathan Schwartz, notes, “As a start-up, we have limited resources. A more affordable arm was really our only option. Performance will one day truly matter to us, but at this early part of our journey into robotic automation, we’re much more interested in having flexibility and something that’s easier to integrate. We were looking for the best value.”
Voodoo’s goal is to reduce its costs by 90% in three years. It knows a large portion of that percentage will come from reducing labour costs through robotic automation. A lot of the company’s processes have the potential to be automated. Right now, production is running an eight-hour shift, five days a week. With automation, Voodoo would be able to keep its printers running 24/7.
With Voodoo’s Skywalker system – which encompasses the printers, the robotic arm, tooling and peripherals – the entire process is automated. When one of the 3D printers finishes, Voodoo’s proprietary operating system signals to the cobot that the printer is done.
Initially, the company set up the lab system to have nine 3D printers mounted in server racks around the cobot. The next step is to expand the system to 27 printers served by the same cobot. The goal beyond that is to mount the cobot on either a rail system or a mobile platform so it can move around the factory. Once mobile, the cobot would be capable of tending to roughly 100 printers.
Voodoo has about 200 printers in total, the use of which is 20–30%, with most of the manually tended 3D printers. With the Skywalker system in the lab running 24/7, the 3D printers are close to 100% use. Once it attains higher reliability and mobility, the company plans to move the Skywalker system into production. Within the next couple of years, the plan is to scale to about 500 printers.
There are also other opportunities for automation, including removing the 3D-printed parts from the build plates and cleaning them, inspecting parts for quality, and organising parts for orders and packing into boxes – all of which are currently performed manually.
Schwartz says, “In our minds, manufacturing shouldn’t be about working in a position where you’re forced into a role like a robot, it’s about doing what humans are best at, which is thinking critically and using your creative and analytical skills. The way factories will – and should – be built, is not with this hard line between human workers and robots. There are tasks that robots are better at, but we won’t have to let anyone go because of this. In fact, it will make us more competitive, which means we can grow the company, grow the team and hire more people.”
An inevitable rise
Collaborative robotics is still an emerging technology. The largest group of potential users, small and medium-sized enterprises, are just beginning to realise its advantages and better understand the limitations.
The proving ground still tends to be large multinational companies, but the scale is tipping. Companies of all sizes are taking advantage of the technology’s greater safety, flexibility, ease of integration and redeployment, space saving, cost-efficiency, faster return on investment and, in many cases, programming ease. Workers are getting used to sharing the shop floor with their new collaborators.
The robots and enabling technologies in this space have advanced considerably in the past five years to allow for a wide variety of applications across many industrial and commercial sectors. The brand options and product features are rapidly expanding to help drive down pricing and spur technological advancement among competitors. Collaborative robotics can take many forms, whether they are PFLRs, traditional robots with functional safety technologies or autonomous mobile robots.
In the future, more direct interaction between humans and robots is expected. Not just working in proximity to each other, but working with each other. Handing off parts and components and working collaboratively on assemblies. This will be the mark of true collaboration, our partnership with the robots.