Robots were once an esoteric and expensive technology that provided limited special-purpose use as welders or parts stackers. These days, robotic advances bring these devices into widespread use in a host of manufacturing applications. In many cases, robots combined with machines can create automated production lines.
According to the Robotic Industries Assn.
(RIA), robot sales
are booming. A total of 16,363 robots valued at $1.1 billion were ordered in the first nine months of 2012 by companies in North America, RIA says, an increase of 20% in units and 29% in dollars over the same period in 2011. One reason might be because even high-performance robots are dropping to attractive price levels. ST Robotics
recently announced the Tandem R125, with two five-axis vertically articulated robot arms, for $20,000.
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For many machine builders, modern robots are a tool, like a press or an injection molder. And, because robots have progressed to the point where use and integration is much simpler, vast opportunities open up for use in factory automation.
Of particular interest are production lines where robots are tightly integrated with machines to create a highly automated system that eliminates intermediate material handling tasks.
Robots Join the Team
Intelligrated in Cincinnati builds material handling solutions. "Robots become faster and more cost-effective every day," says Earl Wohlrab, manager of robotic integration. "This allows us to move robotics into places that were previously unthinkable."
Intelligrated uses robots for simple, end-of-line palletizing cells, complex multi-line palletizing systems, case packing, depalletizing systems and other material handling applications.
System integrator Concept Systems in Albany, Ore., uses robots and vision systems, which have simplified machine design, according to Michael Gurney, co-CEO at Concept Systems. Robots eliminate the need for mechanical guides and fixtures, thus minimizing product changeover times, simplifying the parts-feed process, and eliminating many mechanical components, he explains.
Robots now are just part of a manufacturing line, says Pete Squires, vice president, Schneider Packaging Equipment in Brewerton, N.Y. "To us, a robot is a very reliable and capable tool we integrate into a system," he reports. "Much like a peripheral device such as a printer, you set it up and it works. Treating the robot and its controller as just another peripheral device makes it easy for the user to operate and maintain."
For nearly all of Schneider's robotic solutions, a PLC and HMI is the system master, not the robot, Squires says. "We design our equipment to keep the robot as transparent to the customer as possible, with all normal functions of control and monitoring done through a Rockwell Automation platform," he explains. "That way, our customers do not have to become robot experts — we provide that expertise for them."
If you can't find what you need, robot vendors will build it for you, says Tom Hasse, industrial automation and process control consultant at Frost & Sullivan in Mountain View, Calif. "For special applications that require complex movements and/or interactions with other robots, robot manufacturers will provide a work-cell solution that is more cost-effective for the machine builder."
Robots at Work
There are many conceptual reasons to use robots in production lines. Delkor Systems in St. Paul, Minn., uses robots in its packaging equipment (Figure 1). "We use robots primarily to load product into trays, cartons or cases, as they provide reliable, quality operation and speed, plus allow flexibility to accommodate customer-specific requirements," explains Adam Koller, director of engineering at Delkor. "The robots pick random product off a conveyor using cameras, or pick pre-collated product from a collation belt."
The robots are part of a complete line. "Typically, the lines are built in a modular fashion and consist of a carton-forming machine running anywhere from 30 to 200 cartons per minute, a product collation section, a robotic loading cell, and a carton-closing machine," Koller says. "Conveyors connect the modules to one another."
Machine builder Aagard, based in Alexandria, Minn., uses robots in its carton packaging machinery. "Our latest robotic solution is a Codian D4-100 Delta robot driven by low-inertia servo motors and servo drives," notes Steve Mulder, president.