For anyone who’s recently attended a trade show or talked to a neighboring fabricator, there is no denying the tremendous impact the growing industrial robot install base is having on the manufacturing sector. From machine tending to material removal, servo-driven industrial arms are agile enough to perform all kinds of tasks.
Robots can also reduce dependency on hard-to-find skilled welders while keeping workers safe from duties that are deemed dirty, dull or dangerous. This all positions the industrial robot market to reach nearly $70 billion by 2023, according to the firm Research and Markets in its Top Robotics Report 2018 – Global Forecast to 2023.
For first-time users, robots can seem daunting, but numerous robot companies with outstanding customer service have application engineers that specialize in conceptualizing advanced solutions, easing the transition into robotic automation. However, before you contact a robot manufacturer or integrator, it is important for your company’s decision-makers to be on board with the concept.
To reach this stage of approval, gathering pertinent information that can assist the decision-making process is advised. This knowledge will help you communicate to leaders the importance of robotic implementation and the key concepts to consider before making a robot purchase.
Current trends in manufacturing are driving more attention to calculating return on investment (ROI) before making a capital equipment purchase. When considering whether a robot is going to pay for itself, the most crucial question to ask is, “does the application fit well with robotic automation?”
Contemplating the redundancies and making note of the predictable outcomes should go a long way in discovering the answer. For example, a simple task, such as a robot repeatedly welding an identical joint, has much less complexity and added technologies than a robot using vision to pick up randomly sorted parts. Thus, the less “thought” required to complete a given task, the less cost it should be to implement a robotic system, helping to realize ROI much sooner.
This brings up the question, “how is ROI measured?” The basic factors to compare are the cost of the system plus operating and maintenance versus the productivity increase and labor savings.
A robot that is “kept busy” should pay for itself incrementally faster, which can be challenging for new users needing to adapt to the increased productivity of the robot. Regardless, life after initial ROI (usually one to two years, or less) continues to escalate cash flow as the operating cost of the robot may average 75 cents per hour compared to a labor wage of $15 per hour.
There are some situations, however, where ROI can be instantaneous. For example, some manufacturers are unable to find the labor capable of completing certain jobs due to dangerous conditions inherent to the task or lack of skills. To estimate the ROI for your application, several robot manufacturers have developed payback calculators that simplify the assessment.
In many scenarios, ROI tends to be more important for small to medium-sized companies, especially those starting to invest in robotics. While ROI is still a valid consideration for larger manufacturers, these companies usually pay more attention to cycle time. Measured by the amount of time required to produce a product or service, cycle time determines the maximum number of units that a company can produce in a given period.
The two primary factors that affect cycle time are the robot axes’ speed and the process limitations. For example, you can have the fastest robot in the world, but if it takes a set amount of time to apply adhesive to a part, the robot cannot work at its full potential. This is where functions and sensors available from the robot manufacturer can calculate air-cut times, optimize path speeds and enhance ancillary equipment capabilities to reduce cycle time. Technologies, such as coordinated motion, also allow you to synchronize robots and positioners so parts can move together to speed up the process.
The trend toward increasing the average number of robots per workcell is steadily increasing, especially for larger manufacturers. Adding robots to an application is usually the simplest way to decrease cycle time, and in most cases, the cost of adding a second or third robot to a workcell is negligible compared to the first.
Moreover, depending on the process, the addition of a second robot can nearly reduce the cycle time by half. That said, it is much simpler to add and plan for these additional robots up front than integrating them into the system at a later time.
Downtime can also be factored into overall average cycle time. If the robot is not moving, it simply is not producing. Factors such as tool changes or periodic maintenance create required downtime to produce a different part or to extend the life of the system. Sealed drive units or automatic lubrication on positioners reduce the need for periodic maintenance. Ethernet/IP connected tooling can automatically call up and ensure accurate job selections upon tool changes while compliance devices, such as a MotoMount fixture mounting system, can reduce the tool change complexity and time.
Ease of use
The term “robotics” typically stirs up images of engineers calculating complex algorithms to make the robot run. Although that may be true for the robot manufacturer before the equipment reaches you, the robots themselves are designed with an intuitive interface. All robots utilize a simple line-by-line code that can be learned by any operator.
However, this skill develops with time. Both experienced and new operators can program the robot, but the experienced operator is most likely faster and probably knows how to fully utilize built-in functions created by the robot manufacturer. Attending certified robot training, offered by the manufacturer, can help speed up this process.
As interfaces are becoming more intuitive and user-friendly, the learning curve for robots is becoming less steep. The next generation of robot programming is here, and intuitive devices are radically changing the way robots are commanded to complete tasks.
Programming pendants are being designed to work like tablet computers or mobile devices. For easy control of the robot movement, some pendants like Yaskawa’s SmartFrame interface are engineered to determine the user’s orientation relative to the robot, eliminating the use of conventional (X, Y, Z) frames.
Options such as built-in help and how-to instructions have eliminated the chore of consulting hard-copy manuals. Faster and more precise, robot controllers today provide powerful functionality while being easier to use. Features like a single controller-to-robot cable are improving cable reliability, and preventative maintenance information combined with powerful software tools for analysis and notification are enabling simplified maintenance.
Giving serious thought to a specific application and the process that you plan to automate will help zero in on a specific robot model or workcell. From application-specific robots to multi-robot workcells, most likely there is a robotic solution that can deliver results that reliably meet or exceed your application requirements.
For manufacturers looking for a unique approach to arc welding, the purchase of a standard pre-engineered robotic workcell may be the most affordable option. From arc welding robots equipped with laser-based seam finding and seam tracking capabilities to high-speed turntables for multi-station configurations, these robotic welding workcells can greatly improve throughput and weld quality for demanding applications in multiple industries.
Other companies may be looking to remedy production inefficiencies through robotic automation. Just like optimized acceleration capabilities can reduce the air-cut time for a welding robot, the combined utilization of material handling robots alongside welding robots can streamline production. This is especially true for mid- to high-volume welding applications where a handling robot can transfer fixtures from station to station or load and unload parts while the robot welds at another station.
If your application is complex, robot manufacturers can also refer qualified partners that offer deep application expertise to meet automation project needs. From cutting to painting systems, and everything in between, an automation expert can help you design and build the ideal solution.
A robot purchase is often determined by the environment where it will be used. If it is for the food industry, a robot may need to comply with stringent sanitary conditions as stipulated by the Food Safety Modernization Act, possibly requiring an IP67 rating and easy-to-clean surface for use in sanitary environments. Similarly, robots used for die-cast and forge work can be equipped with peripherals, such as a highly-durable protective jacket to withstand common foundry hazards like coolants, die lubrication, airborne particles and severe heat.
Although robots have advanced greatly in 40 years, robot manufacturers continue to develop revolutionary technologies that deliver better efficiency, quality, consistency and productivity. Robot designs are becoming more streamlined, allowing close proximity placement of robots in high-density workcells, and more extended-reach robot arms are eliminating the need for linear tracks. High-tech sensors are also becoming less expensive and easier to use. In fact, many of those considering investing in robotics are often surprised to learn that a complete robotic system is not nearly as expensive as anticipated.
To accommodate a wide variety of end-user requirements, some robot manufacturers have more than 100 robot models with a variety of payload capacities, arm reaches, mounting options and more. These features, along with what type of end tooling or vision capabilities to be used, should be discussed with your robot expert. While there is much to consider and plan, focusing on these priorities will help guide you down the path to operational success.
Unless you are looking at used robots, you will notice it is difficult to find an online price for a system. Sometimes, the right fit may be higher or lower than a simple base-line comparison. Apples-to-apples depends on your true need, and any experienced robot manufacturer or integrator should be able to fit your operations with an ideal robotic solution.