The thought of automating an entire factory may bring visions of a Jetsons-like technology paradise, where everything is flying down a conveyor and being assembled flawlessly. In light of the current Manufacturing 5.0 landscape, this almost magical notion isn’t an impossible dream. It simply requires detailed attention to the pieces that need to come together, while at the same time requiring resources that most companies have yet to implement.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, picture a lonely robot workcell pushed into a dark shop floor corner. Perhaps it was the first “test” by a shop to see if automation could really work, but for one reason or another, the robot continues to sit, collecting dust. How did this robot become a forgotten, capitalized lesson in neglect and improper processes? It’s simple: At some point, one or more of the following “robot fails” occurred.
Stories and ads promoting expertly designed robot workcells executing complex tasks abound, and it’s easy to assume that your application requires an identical solution to the one that you saw at last month’s trade show. However, a variety of nuances make each situation unique. From part size and weldment locations to material differences and more, there are numerous items to consider during the design and build phase of a robotic solution.
For this reason, it is best to reach out to a robot manufacturer or integrator to consult their knowledgeable application engineers. Not only will this help you conceptualize the ideal robot system, but it can also help your organization successfully ease into robotic automation and all that entails.
Buying a robot requires more than lugging the arm to the shop floor and flipping a switch, especially if there is not an experienced robot programmer on-site. An experienced consultant addresses the educational needs for your current workforce and offers best practices for robot integration on the factory floor.
The cheapest option
Most likely, you will approach buying a robot with a set purchase price in mind. Robot manufacturers anticipate this, and some will only quote a bare-bones solution as a result, trying to get as close to your target price point as possible. Compared to other system quotes, the price received may be ideal. Yet, the reality of the cheap quote – which probably only included the robot arm with minimum safeguarding – soon sets in when the functions needed to make your solution efficiently work in a cost-saving manner over a given payback period are not included.
Something else to consider is the value of aftermarket care. Whether you purchase one robot or hundreds, having access to diverse support services from the robot manufacturer to ensure peak robot performance for maximum ROI is key. Things to look for include:
- 24/7 technical support to diagnose problems remotely
- Regionally located field service technicians for rapid on-site support
- 24/7 emergency parts availability with a high “first-pass fill rate”
- IACET-accredited training at a hands-on location
- Modernization options (rebuilds, upgrades and retrofits) to increase productivity and profitability
- Heterogeneous life cycle management tools for preventative and predictive maintenance
To better handle mass product customization and supply chain synchronization, finding a committed robotic automation partner that offers beneficial support programs of this nature is a must.
Robotic automation is sort of a misnomer. The robot does not teach itself, and it’s only as good as its instructor. Because lack of robot training can paralyze operations, it is essential to invest in robot training and empower employees with the knowledge they need. As mentioned, robot training at an IACET-accredited training school, like Yaskawa Academy, is highly recommended for every robot operator.
Manufacturers that cannot afford to send workers away to training should invite certified instructors into the facility to provide on-site robot training. Or, in some cases, the use of comprehensive software, like Yaskawa’s MotoSim or Octopuz, can be used. Offline robot programming platforms like this enable individual operator training as well as robot programming and optimization, all from the convenience of a desktop computer.
Along with thorough robot training should be the incentive for robot operators to make the robot run at its most efficient. The most successful customers create a robot workcell champion – an employee fully dedicated to robot programming, utilization and maintenance. While finding the proper employee to meet the criteria needed to fill this challenging position may be difficult, offering incentives and rewarding the proper person for goals reached is a good way to go.
No matter the training path, it is ideal for employees to be trained and certified before a robot is installed to facilitate a smooth implementation process and minimize production downtime.
Failing to plan ahead
When you first buy a robot, you may think, “If I can just automate this one part, I will be so successful.” While realizing that success may be easy, the next step should be to make that robot work more. Whether you add another part to be processed or have the robot process more parts in less time, this is a logical next step. Once that is mastered, give consideration to other unique processes that could be automated.
Through it all, keeping equipment similar (i.e., same robot brand or weld torch brand) will make it easier to support multiple machines across a growing networked environment. Something to keep in mind with emerging next-generation technologies, such as intuitive teach pendants, digital weld interfaces and machine vision systems, is that they typically are only compatible with newer generation robots and controllers.
In some cases, a third-party hardware/software option may require additional computer power or ladder scanning performance to work properly. Therefore, if you’re looking to gain a competitive edge with the smartest and fastest technology, you should be mindful of all the items that may need to be upgraded before new technology can be effectively utilized.
Discarding the robot
Some manufacturers in the past saw a robot as a “one and done” kind of machine – where it accomplished its original purpose before being banished to the shop floor corner. Part of the beauty of robotic automation is a high-performance robot’s ability to perform in multiple applications.
With the growing expanse of multi-use end effectors and other reusable peripheral tools, once a robot is finished with one task, it can often be reprogrammed for another. A welding robot might be converted into a handling robot or a pick-and-place robot or changed into an assembly robot. This type of flexibility is advantageous in today’s booming high-mix, low-volume market landscape.
Robots today are highly reliable and built to last 15-plus years. With the proper maintenance schedule and ability to successfully manage robot programming and utilization, greater ROI can be achieved. In addition, robot manufacturers stock replacement parts for previous generations of robots to keep that unit working strong.
If you truly do not have a new application for that robot due to payload requirements or other reasons, many companies are willing to buy used or refurbished robots.
Failing with robots is actually quite difficult. Over the last 40 years, robot OEMs have developed revolutionary technologies – such as 7-axis welding robots for highly flexible range of motion and universal weld interfaces for the full utilization of advanced capabilities on select digital welding power supplies – to deliver better efficiency, quality, consistency and productivity.
Despite the soaring competitive market landscape, the number of robotic applications to address production pitfalls continues to grow. Whether you have a defunct robot sitting on your factory floor or are new to robotic automation, an experienced robot vendor or integrator can help you assess your current situation and get you on the winning path to success.