Integration of robots has become much easier due to advancements in technology and programming. With robotics playing such a pivotal role in the future of discrete manufacturing, we asked a seasoned panel of industry for their insights and predictions on the role of robots.
Q: Can you explain some of the technical advancements that have made robots easier to integrate in equipment, cells or production lines?
Allan Hottovy: The biggest current improvement is not in the advanced technology being implemented, but in that these devices are fast becoming commodity items and easy to implement. Our focus is on manufacturing very flexible, easy to understand, interchangeable, standardized sensor components that can be easily re-tasked after a production run or project. The simpler and more standardized you make the robotic sensor components, the easier they are to reconfigure, use and repair. Sticking to international standards and regulations while building your automation system can ensure that your system is easy to understand, maintain and service. It's one of our core beliefs.
George Schuster: There are a variety of technological advancements contributing to increased adoption of industrial robots. Robots and PACs are increasingly integrated over open industrial Ethernet networks. Those networks provide the ability for automation controllers and robots to communicate control, safety and process information at very high speeds. Additional developments greatly improve the ease with which these systems can be configured to communicate by structuring data in more contextualized ways that are meaningful for the application.
The use of this shared, contextualized data is improving the use and maintenance of robotics within complex work cells. The ability to share HMIs and show data from a variety of sources can help to improve machine troubleshooting and expedite machine debugging and repair. This can lead to a systematic reduction in mean time to repair and improved system yield.
Advancements in safety sensor technologies have improved the ability to detect human approach and, thus, have improved the way that robots and machinery can respond. These safety sensors include laser scanners and other “time of flight” technologies that can better coordinate the motion of people with that of the equipment under control. This improves the integration of people and their tasks with robots and other automation equipment in a work cell.
Additionally, the integration of advanced safety functions into motor controllers and robotic systems provides new tools for system designers. Those tools allow them to more precisely manage the behavior of machinery in the presence of operators and maintenance personnel. These advanced safety functions include safe stop, safe speed, safe direction, safe position and other capabilities. When combining advanced safety sensors, integrated communication and shared data, system designers are able to dramatically improve the way that people and robot equipment interact, leading to improved safety and system productivity.
Scott Mabie: We constantly raise the bar for what the term “collaborative” truly entails. The label not only means humans can collaborate directly with the robots potentially with no safety guarding between them, the term also addresses ease of use. A robot is not truly collaborative if it’s not easy to work with. Our research-and-development team constantly works on improving the robotics user interface. The out-of-box experience should be less than an hour. That’s the time it takes an untrained operator to unpack the robot, mount it and program the first simple tasks. Programming should be intuitive and be done by simply grabbing the robot arm to show it the desired movement or by using the arrow keys on the touchscreen.
Alex Bonaire: The biggest advancements in recent years that have aided robotic implementation are with off-line robot simulation software. Complete robotic work cells can now be created off-line, and their operation can be simulated so that customers and engineers can see exactly how the system will operate. This greatly reduces the risk associated with robotic automation because no physical hardware is required, and, if there is a flaw in the design, it can be found and fixed much more easily.
David Arens: Robots need two things to work properly—consistent incoming product quality and dimensions, as well as consistent and periodic maintenance to their operating parts. Unless these two parts exist, the integration will be flawed and the production will have a lot of losses. The other thing that has helped in the integration of robots is the fact that there are some basic common types that people now have experience with—six-axis with end effector and wrist, Scara, Delta and Cartesian.
Many companies already offer a kinematic, in other words a mathematical model that will provide the motion needed. Integrated vision library systems that show how it was done and repeatable performance and speed are important.
Corey Ryan: Human robot collaboration (HRC) has been ongoing for many years. Over the past decade, robots in the medical and entertainment industries have interacted directly with people. Social acceptance of the idea that people and robots can work safely together and heavy cost-reduction targets are what have fueled the collaborative robotics market on the industrial side. From a technical standpoint, the integration of area sensors and vision systems has made it possible to design HRC cells using standard industrial robots. Because of the market demand, companies have developed robots specifically for human-robot collaboration with features such as rounded edges, no pinch points, variable stiffness and force control. Those robots designed for HRC have integrated force sensors and safety software that allow for safe system design without a lot of the additional effort required when using standard industrial robots.
Craig Souser: Pre-engineered application packages from robot suppliers also help.
Garrett Place: One of the biggest challenges for integrating a robot is the programming. Advancements in this area include programming via a PLC and touch/force sensitive programming. Controls engineers are very skilled at programming a PLC. By adopting this type of programming structure, the speed of implementation and the number of people capable of performing the programming increases.
Regarding touch/force sensitive programming, many cobots utilize a show-me type of programming for simple applications. The user simply takes control of the arm at a specified location. They can then pull or push the arm to the different way points of the intended action. The robot then can repeat this task. No traditional programming is required.
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