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Adapting to Changing Markets with Flexible Robots

Manufacturers are going small for their robotics and automation. Products have a brief lifecycle and the market is filled with a demand for customized products. Companies in industries like electronics, automotive and the life sciences are turning to flexible robots.

Small robots get jobs done with precision and they have benefits over fixed robots or hard automation. They save floor space and can easily be re-tooled to handle new product lines and reduce engineering costs.

Take a closer look at robots that are designed smaller, work with intricate parts, and are easy to program.

CIRCULAR ASSEMBLY

Local manufacturers using robots for small parts assembly are finding that assembly lines don’t need to function in a straight line, and the number of robots needed to complete tasks can be reduced.

In a traditional automotive setting you might have up to 20 stations in an assembly line and each station would handle a specific task. In an automotive assembly for small, interior parts like buttons for turning mirrors, station one puts the button in place, station two clicks it down, and station three puts on the appliqué and the multi-step process continues.

Manufacturers using flexible robotics and automation end up saving costs, as described in the article Small Assembly Robots with Big Gains on the Robotic Industry Association (RIA) website.

TM Robotics in Elk Grove Village, Illinois focuses on small parts like buttons and pistons. They had a customer that standardized a micro SCARA robot and then just changed the end-of-arm tooling at each station. The robot was able to work on multiple tasks. The customer has eight stations with one robot each instead of operating 14 or 15 stations. Parts are assembled in a circle instead of linear, so it doesn’t use up a lot of factory floor space.

VISUAL POWER

A vision system, as described in the write-up What are Vision Systems on motioncontrolonline.org, is used for final inspection and quality control as well as assembly. Cameras are used to locate parts and place them. In the article Robots, Cameras, and Cables: Avoiding Catastrophic VGR Failures there are several options for camera placement on SCARA robots.

Cameras can be mounted on one of the joints, or at a fixed location separate from the robot, or both. With SCARAs, the focus is speed and precision.

ROBOT-TO-ROBOT COORDINATION

More robots and humans are working in collaboration in factories throughout North America. One advantage of flexible robots is that they can work together on the same part at the same time in cooperative motion.

This is more efficient than when one robot works on a part, sets it down, and the next robot picks it up. The technology that prevents interference avoidance has been around for a decade, but more applications are now calling for it.

Traditionally, some type of handshaking routine was programmed in the robot code, where the robot notes it’s at a particular location in space. Information is relayed to nearby robots to make sure they don’t enter a workspace, but they end up waiting and the process is slowed down.

Interference avoidance technology automatically establishes a reference of one robot to the next and they function more like one machine.

RETOOLING

Using one robot for multiple purposes makes robotics and automation as cost effective as possible.

In hard automation, you have to replace an entire machine. Flexible robots make it possible to do a complete retool without having to re-engineer many moving parts. Fingers may need changed on a gripper, or the software program needs changing.

Robot automation provides flexibility for handling parts of different sizes and shapes and in the automotive industry that can handling exotic material for high-end cars or standard stereo controls used in a Ford Focus. The product lifecycle changeover is about every 18 months and robot arms can be retooled at the same interval.

In electronics, turnover is even faster. New versions of phones and televisions roll out every several months. Companies are able to make one initial purchase of robots and yet work with completely new products. The flexibility keeps costs down overall.

Keep on top of industrial automation trends and news on A3automate.org, including A3 Automate president Jeff Burnstein’s recent appearance on the BBC discussing the economic impact of automation.