The arrival of collaborative robots (or cobots) and lightweight industrial robot arms over the past decade has empowered companies of all sizes to introduce automation to their production
Across tens of thousands of deployments globally, cobots and lightweight industrial robot arms have been shown to increase productivity and throughput while improving quality and ergonomics. Small to medium-size enterprises (SMEs), in particular, have benefitted greatly from these new classes of affordable, flexible, easy-to-use robots.
Cobots and lightweight industrial robot arms can be deployed on a plethora of applications from sanding, screwdriving and welding through material handling, machine tending, quality inspection and assembly. This combination of ease of use and flexibility makes the technology an ideal fit for today’s fast-paced manufacturing environment.
Cobots’ ease of use, compared to traditional industrial automation, is a major attraction for SMEs that don’t have in-house robotics experience. Instead of hiring robot engineers to deploy robots on an application, SMEs can deploy and redeploy robots themselves.
The effect has been a widespread democratization of automation. Industrial automation was once the preserve of large companies with budgets and teams of in-house engineers to match. Today, cobot and lightweight industrial robots provide a proven, low-barrier way for SMEs to enjoy the benefits of automation.
Production monitoring software is on a similar journey from exclusive “luxury item” status to widespread adoption by companies of all sizes – and lightweight industrial robots and cobots are once again at the forefront of this important transformation of the manufacturing landscape.
Adoption of production monitoring tools is on the rise. The global production monitoring market is expected to grow from $4 billion in 2018 to $6.4 billion by 2023, at a compound annual growth rate of 9.8 percent, according to recent research from Markets and Markets.
Using key performance indicators defined by the end user, production monitoring software collects raw data from your automation cell and turns it into easy-to-interpret data visualizations via dashboards. Such systems provide real-time production monitoring, device diagnostics and data analytics designed to enhance productivity and minimize downtime. In addition, these software solutions eliminate the need for time-consuming manual data collection.
Deploying production monitoring software provides a quick and easy way to fully unlock the data that would otherwise remain hidden in your automation cell. By shining a light on how well your cobot cell is performing, the software also provides the information required to tweak and boost your robot’s performance. The software can be used to capture the number of safety stops initiated in your production cell, for example, or to track the number of grip cycles performed while an application is running. And to avoid costly unscheduled downtime, these systems can be used to schedule maintenance at a time that suits your production flow.
Best of all, these systems can be accessed from any location with a secure Internet connection, enabling remote monitoring of your automation cell. This was an emerging trend before the pandemic as companies discovered the value of remote production monitoring solutions. Today, with the pandemic’s lessons around business continuity still fresh in mind, remote monitoring is fast becoming a critical component of manufacturers’ digitalization strategies.
There are three main types of remote automation monitoring system for cobots and lightweight industrial robot arms, each offering a specific focus for end users:
The first, robot-focused monitoring systems, are typically provided by the manufacturer. These systems are highly brand specific, and their outputs are typically designed for engineers
rather production managers.
The second, generic IIoT platforms, could be used for remote production monitoring, possibly with integration to enterprise resource planning (ERP) and manufacturing execution systems (MES), but this is too time-consuming, costly and complex for all but the largest companies.
The third type, collaborative application-focused production monitoring software, hits the sweet spot for SMEs. Application focused systems are designed with the same principles in mind that drove the development of cobots – ease of use and speed of deployment. Dispensing with the complexity of their generic IIoT platform and robot brand-specific monitoring counterparts, collaborative application-focused systems convert raw data into dashboard insights that production managers and shopfloor workers can easily interpret and act on.
Traditionally, production monitoring for automation cells and applications was exclusively for large companies that could absorb the cost and complexity associated with manual data collection, generic IIoT systems and traditional production monitoring software. These barriers to adoption have fallen away with the recent emergence of collaborative application monitoring software solutions aimed at SMEs.
Unlocking OEE data
Overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) is the most widely used metric for measuring manufacturing productivity. The correlation between OEE and the profitability of a facility is well-established, with incremental improvements in OEE leading to notable increases in production and reductions in costly downtime.
An OEE score of 100 percent means you are manufacturing only “good parts” as fast as possible with no stop time. A low OEE score indicates there is a “hidden factory” in your facility with unused resources producing losses where there should be value.
While OEE is well-known and understood by companies of all sizes, SMEs have found reliable systems difficult to implement and costly to operate. Collaborative application monitoring systems remove these barriers by providing an easy overview of OEE and other key production parameters.
From the SME perspective, this provides a no-fuss way to introduce digitalization to facilities – no manual work is required in setting up dashboards and most of these solutions are easily scalable to additional cells.
Digital due diligence
Not all collaborative application monitoring software is created equal.
For example, some solutions will only work with one cobot or robot brand. This severely limits flexibility for end users and weakens any effort to futureproof production processes, since it effectively locks you into one ecosystem. People on the market for monitoring software should look for products that provide compatibility with all major industrial robot brands.
Other features for SMEs to look out for in remote monitoring systems include: an intuitive end user interface, the ability to easily create personalized dashboards, and easy access to live and historical production data.
Finally, look for remote monitoring software developed by companies that understand the automation and digitalization challenges faced by SMEs, such as being able to derive value from monitoring software even with just a single robot deployed. This will help ensure that the solution is a good match for your production requirements and budgetary limitations.