To transform production and deliver greater value to customers during the global pandemic and beyond, manufacturers continue to apply proven techniques and implement advanced
technologies on the shop floor. From lean manufacturing for reduced waste and improved efficiencies to using high-performance robots for enhanced quality and increased throughput, there are multiple tools being used to optimize operations. The concept of retrofitting current production layouts via robotic tools – both new robots, as well as repurposing those that already exist on the shop floor – has taken on greater popularity over the last year.
From welding to coating and press tending to parcel sortation, a wide range of tasks are prime targets where retrofitting is concerned. Market demands constantly change production and fabrication requirements, making it vital for manufacturers to have the flexibility to adapt when pressed. While it is ideal to design an application around robotic automation, most tasks today are augmented with robots years after manual operations have been in place – as building fully automated facilities can be expensive and time-consuming.
The good news is that robot suppliers are savvy to manufacturing needs, creating options to enhance operations and subsequent product quality on a regular basis.
When thinking about a production upgrade there are many avenues decision makers can take to rework existing workspaces and potentially reuse current equipment. There are a few locations on the shop floor where adding robotic technologies can prove to make a difference.
Machine cells. Highly repeatable, the integration of high-performance robots that can expertly orient and transport parts for machine tending is gaining traction. Whether it is loading and unloading a CNC machine, or another piece of equipment for grinding, stamping or trimming, the use of robotic automation can minimize human error, increase worker safety, optimize system utilization and facilitate greater efficiency.
Weld booths. Whether driven by takt time, lean manufacturing initiatives or something else, manufacturers may benefit from the addition of robots to a current production space. Modernizing a current weld booth via a single robot arm (or more) can be very effective at optimizing floorspace and increasing throughput. For example, if a manufacturer has a single robot workcell with a cycle time of 10 min., adding a second robot may reduce the cycle time per part in half while not increasing the footprint of the workcell.
Regardless of the workspace size, the right robot with the proper safety precautions (i.e., ventilation, safety fencing, arc flash protection) can be a huge asset. A streamlined robot with a contoured arm is ideal for reaching into tight spaces or workpieces in high-density layouts, and a long-reach arm model is well-suited for improving weld accessibility on large weldments.
Paint booths. Manufacturers that address existing painting, coating and dispensing issues via robotic automation often see tangible benefits. More consistent finishes, greater system uptime, increased production speeds, reduced material waste, valuable floorspace usage and, most importantly, improved worker safety, are all possible outcomes from retrofitting current paint booths with industrial robots.
High-performance models with hollow-wrist designs and wide motion ranges can accommodate large or complex shapes, while more scalable solutions are optimized to address the painting of smaller components. These robots are designed to meet all applicable paint room requirements, and a variety of application enhancements, such as rotary feeders, explosion-proof motors and spray gun options, help facilitate greater finish quality and product throughput.
Press operation. Often chosen because of its robust return on investment (ROI), adding modern day press transfer robots and control systems to current operations can optimize throughput while maximizing safety and profit. Whether making automotive, appliance or agricultural components, and regardless of the size or style (hydraulic or servo driven) of the press, robotic automation is an ideal option for this highly demanding, potentially dangerous and repetitive task.
Furthermore, a robot’s accurate ability to release a part anywhere from 0.5 in. to 1 in. above the die – assuming the die is constructed so that the part can nest itself in the die – is highly advantageous to cycle time.
Heavy payload industrial robots with heavy-duty drive systems and higher vibration rantings are suggested for pressroom applications. Various options such as floor-, shelf- and invert-mount options, as well as rail tracks, may also be helpful.
Logistics tasks. A growing number of advanced technologies are making it easier to configure, program and integrate ideal solutions that tackle high-volume monotonous, backbreaking tasks. This is especially true for parcel sortation, piece-picking, case packing or palletizing. Aside from highly versatile and easy-to-program robots, most components in a packaging line are easily manageable via standard programming environments that eliminate the need for proprietary programming languages.
Operators can now easily oversee robots and their surrounding components through motion control platforms or programmable logic controllers, easing robot setup through simplified communications, increasing production via singular control and empowering manufacturers to tackle dynamic packaging needs that their distributors, retailers and consumers often have.
Other unique tools for dynamic factory and distribution environments, such as highly flexible autonomous mobile robots equipped with LiDAR sensors, are growing in popularity to meet various production needs. These robotic platforms equipped with robots, vision systems, custom end-of-arm tooling and more, maneuver autonomously through a facility to perform assigned tasks in an efficient and safe manner, completing jobs like picking, sorting and on-demand material transport.
Not to be underestimated is the strong influence that extremely efficient and portable collaborative robots (cobots) with industrial pedigrees are having on shop floors and throughout the
supply chain. Easily dropped into existing lines or workcells, cobots with built-in safety-rated power and force limiting sensing, as well as pinchless designs with smooth surfaces, do not necessarily need external safeguarding. As a result, hyper-productive floor layouts are being achieved.
Along with this, lighter weight designs reduce the need for sophisticated robot mounting, making cobots ideal for mounting on extruded aluminum structures in existing facilities. Combine lead-to-teach features that make many cobots easy to program with a trifecta of programming options, and game-changing production is within reach. Decision makers looking to add cobots to the shop floor should also consider integration in the following areas.
Welding. Recent advancements for extremely efficient welding cobots are quickly making them the “go to” for supplemental welding tasks where space is tight and capacity needs a boost. Thye bring highly relevant applications to fruition for high-mix, low-volume production runs. Intuitive software, such as the Universal Weldcom Interface, helps operators set all weld parameters and their special features directly from a teach pendant when needed, and I/O jogging from a momentary command device wired to the robot controller can also provide a quick, intuitive way to update things like torch angle and tooling coordinates.
Newer cobots offer options like an IP67 protection rating to guard against weld spatter or chemicals. No extra protection or “jacket” is required, and the easy-to-clean surface is well-suited for harsh environments. A growing number of manufacturers that have already taken advantage of these flexible machines with easy programming options and intelligent features are using them in various settings, including weld booths for large, heavy workpieces where arc flash protection is already in place.
Inspection. To reduce scrap, maximize good parts and optimize overall equipment effectiveness, flexible robot models, including cobots, are being integrated into workcells to ensure surface quality, weld integrity or part geometry. Offering capability and consistency that humans and coordinated measuring machines cannot, the combined use of cobots and intelligent peripherals like advanced vision systems, robust power supplies, intuitive sound analytics, weld inspection systems and more can provide a wealth of data for making informed production decisions.
When synchronized via the same device management platform, like Yaskawa Cockpit, equipment is meticulously monitored and data is delivered in real time, allowing deeper insights for things like accurate weld quality. Whether it is used for an in-house part, or implemented to check the caliber of parts being brought in from another part of the supply chain, the use of cobots in conjunction with this type of multiple data source connectivity has the ability to positively impact operations.
Cutting. One of the growing uses for cobots is plasma cutting complex cuts on 3-D shapes and large structures. Traditional plasma cutting tables are limited to the X and Y axis for flat part cuts, with limited bevel cut ability. The six axes provided by a robot arm allow unlimited possibilities for cutting holes in multi-dimensional operations, such as cutting pipe, domes and tubular parts.
Because many of these cuts are low volume for high-deposition welding prep, a cobot provides minimum setup and teaching time with intuitive hand guiding. Manufacturers can repeat the same cut as many times as needed, and reteaching for a new cut takes very little time. Robots used for this task also provide higher quality and consistency compared to hand cutting.
Other popular tasks for cobots include machine tending and palletizing. Regarding the latter, higher payload cobots, like the 20-kg payload capacity HC20XP, are capable of reaching full 80-in. pallets without an elevator, making them extremely versatile for spaces where robots need to work in close placement to humans.
It is recommended to have a reputable robot supplier or integrator perform an on-site retrofit consult, assessing possible risks and providing valuable insights about a specific application or process. From robot options to tooling must-haves and safety features to programming tools, there are multiple concepts to consider. Even with retrofitting, ANSI safety standards should be followed and are paramount to any upgrade.
Another idea for manufacturers to consider is the concept of utilizing certified pre-owned robots. A growing trend for small job shops and medium-size manufacturers, retrofitting is often a more affordable and faster option, accelerating ROI. Regardless of the strategic plan, overall budget and chosen equipment, implementing “new to you” robotic technologies or repurposing existing ones can help maintain a competitive advantage for years to come.