As complicated end user demands continue to grow and evolve, manufacturers are re-evaluating their production capacity and implementing new technologies to deal with the uptick in consumer demand. Whether a company chooses to integrate a fast, accurate handling robot equipped with a vision system to track and pick parts from a moving conveyor or whether a robotic welding workcell is installed, automating processes without maxing out valuable floorspace can be a challenge.
Many production facilities that have been in operation for years were designed for maximum efficiency using human labor. Moreover, these operations were largely built from the ground up to complement a single product or specific task. While effective for high-throughput production with no variation, these facilities have historically become their own roadblocks when manufacturing and product requirements change, leaving little room for product line expansion, let alone robotic automation.
However, all of that is changing, and the myth that robotic automation cannot be installed in traditional shops and factories is being challenged – thanks to more affordable and versatile robots accompanied by intelligent technologies. And, with the human element still one of the most valuable assets any company can have, the idea of “dropping in” a robot to complement production has great appeal.
A high priority for robot suppliers and integrators is to offer robots and workcells that enable better floorspace utilization. Whether a small fab shop is working around space constraints or whether a large Tier 1 company is measuring production value per square foot or even per square inch, having space-saving equipment capable of efficiently and consistently performing mundane, physically demanding tasks helps manufacturers get the most out of their available space.
Whether it’s high-speed selective-compliance articulated robot arm (SCARA) usage or ultra-compact articulated robot utilization, there are multiple robot options manufacturers can implement into existing lines to gain the flexibility needed to address current production challenges. The list of options is long, but some of the most popular options are as follows:
SCARA robots: Highly suitable for high-speed handling and assembly systems, extremely fast 4-axis SCARA robots are ideal for a variety of tasks, including sorting, inspection, pick and place, and insertion. Their small footprint permits easy integration with existing machinery to expand current processes, and their compact design minimizes mounting space.
Unlike Delta robots, which require an overhead structure, SCARA robots maintain fast cycle times and offer a high footprint-to-work envelope ratio. Easily integrated with vision functionality, as needed, SCARA robots are often a cost-effective option for high-density layouts and quick deployments.
Dual-arm robots: A smart choice for assembly, part transfer, machine tending, packaging and other handling tasks where space is an issue, dual-arm robots with up to 15 axes and slim body designs can optimize use of space and can reach into tight spots without affecting functionality.
With usually six or seven degrees of freedom in each arm, these dexterous robots easily emulate human motion with the ability to hold a part with one arm while performing additional operations with the other arm. Like many newer 6-axis robots, internally routed cabling also reduces interference and maintenance while simplifying programming.
Compact 6-axis robots: Increasing in popularity, smaller compact robots can be easily integrated into existing lines or workcells for machine tending or pick-and-place applications. Aside from internal cabling and airlines to minimize interference with other process equipment, a variety of mounting options from any angle are usually available to accommodate high-density factory layouts.
Compact welding workcells: Compact footprint workcells are now filling a void that has existed in many job shops for decades. Ideal for high-mix production of small to medium-size parts, these workcells are typically pre-engineered with one or two workstations along with fixed tooling or servo headstock positioners.
While humans and many robots are roughly the same size when doing comparable work, most robots require safeguarding that takes up valuable floorspace. Now, with collaborative robots (cobots) and technologies, this is less of a concern and a robot can be “dropped” into a space designed for human labor with minimal redesign, providing tangible benefits.
Offering pinchless designs and smooth surfaces with no exposed sharp edges, cobots are designed to work safely with or in close placement to human workers. Built-in, safety-rated power and force limiting (PFL) sensors allow the robot to monitor the external forces applied to its body and stop so as not to exceed pre-set thresholds. This reduces or eliminates the requirement for external safety sensors and protects workers from potentially harmful contact situations.
Needless to say, this makes cobots a go-to when space is tight and production throughput needs a boost. This is especially true for welding environments that need to add capacity to current production as cobots are easily rolled up to large, heavy workpieces or placed beside manual welders at existing weld tables for supplemental welding.
Whether a robot is a standard industrial model or a human-collaborative model, a primary benefit of robotic implementation is gaining greater ability to optimize operations to manage and fulfill the uptick in consumer product variety. Much of this flexibility comes from four cobot modes – safety monitored stop, PFL, hand guiding, and speed and separation monitoring – accommodating a variety of interactive space-saving floorplans to optimize productivity and supply chain management.
Furthermore, these four modes give manufacturers the flexibility to use longer reach, heavier payload industrial robots when cobots are not a viable option. While just one of the four modes qualifies a robot as being collaborative, the entire robotic system must be assessed to determine whether an application is truly collaborative. This includes the robot, end-of-arm tooling, workpiece and robot work area.
If any of these critical areas fails to meet the standards of collaborative operation during a thorough risk assessment, then the application cannot be deemed collaborative – even if a “collaborative” robot, in name, is being used.
- Safety monitored stop: Compatible with all robots that are equipped with a functional safety unit, safety monitored stop is often utilized with a standard industrial robot (paired with a series of photoelectric presence sensors or a laser scanner). This mode detects human entrance into the monitored workspace, briefly pausing the robot movement until the person is clear.
- Power and force limiting: Used for frequent human-robot interaction, PFL robots like the HC10XP and HC20XP are inherently safe by design. Dual-channel torque sensors in all joints constantly monitor force to quickly react to contact, making it ideal for when a human worker needs to be present within the robot work area. When people refer to a cobot, they generally mean a robot that includes PFL technology.
- Hand guiding: A unique feature on certain industrial robots and cobots that simplifies robot teaching, hand guiding enables a robot programmer to teach a program path to the robot by physically guiding the robot from point to point. The built-in PFL sensors on HC-series cobots enable the use of this feature by making the robot safe to work with.
- Speed and separation monitoring: Used on PFL robots to increase cycle times or on standard robots to streamline human-robot interaction, this mode employs the use of laser scanners or light curtains to detect when a human worker approaches a robot. It also allows the robot to work within a pre-defined safety zone, slowing when a worker enters the monitored area. When a worker enters the robot’s work envelope, a cobot with PFL can continue operation where a standard industrial robot must come to a complete stop.
Keep in mind, with any process, proper employee training and personal protective equipment should be used, depending on the risks associated with a given application. For example, welders still need proper clothing and eye protection when operating a welding cobot.
To add to the space-saving appeal of newer robots, one must not overlook the necessary control and management factors that may come into play.
Compact robot controllers: A growing number of new robots, like SG-series SCARA robots, the MotoMini and the HC20XP cobot are taking the space-saving mentality to the next level with small, yet robust controllers, such as the Yaskawa YRC1000micro, which can be installed in a vertical or horizontal position as well as within an industry-standard 19-in. rack. Not only do these controllers optimize floorspace, they typically also offer a lightweight teach pendant with intuitive programming.
Unified programming environment: For many applications, such as material handling, picking, packing and palletizing, programmable logic controllers (PLCs) are prevalent. The Yaskawa MLX300 system can provide operators with a user-friendly approach to automation by allowing them to control robots using PLC function blocks.
This approach also allows for faster integration and better utilization of floorspace by consolidating hardware and eliminating redundant electrical interfaces. A combination of up to four robots and positioners can be connected, providing robust interface options that enable the programming of a broad range of industrial robots, servo systems and variable frequency drives.
Another space-saving idea for manufacturers to consider is to discover the “hidden” space available throughout the production facility.
From offices to lunch seating to locker rooms and more, human workers typically take up more space within a factory than where they are standing at a given time. While workers are vital to manufacturing environments, repurposing some of this space by adding robotic automation allows manufacturers to increase productivity and quality without increasing the overall footprint.
Additionally, the use of robots for dull, repetitive jobs frees human talent to be better used for higher value-added tasks. As seen with the recent pandemic, this re-deployment of workers can also serve to greatly reduce the spread of illness by keeping them socially distanced.
Often overlooked, the use of overhead space can optimize a variety of applications. For example, a shelf-mounted robot can be installed in an inverted position over an assembly line – a location where a human worker would not normally be positioned.
Robot manufacturers work diligently to design and create robots, workcells and technologies that can increase quality and catapult momentum while saving valuable floorspace. Whether a manufacturer is looking to add robots for the first time or is an established company wanting to implement automation to keep up with market demands, chances are there is a space-saving robotic technology that will boost productivity for years to come.