Automating responsibly to increase efficiencies

Advances in robotics is making the technology an attractive option for many applications, however by not matching the technology to the task, many are failing to see the benefits.

Once a decision has been made to use robotics, it can be tempting to automate as much as possible.

However, without carefully evaluating production goals and matching the right tool for the job, automation or robotic installations can often create more work than it alleviates.

So then when does automation help, and when does it hurt?

With over 40 years experience in robotics field, Paul Wong, MD of Applied Robotics has witnessed a number of key changes.

“In the last 20 years most of the ‘easy’ manufacturing tasks have largely been automated.

“We are now tackling the more difficult tasks where ‘newer’ technologies are asked to take over the erstwhile manual capability to cope with less structured inputs and to provide quality control of the output,” Wong explained.

“Since the mid 90s, intelligent sensory technologies and vision systems have been added to enable the robot to make small adaptations in their pre-programmed moves to account for variations.

“Examples of this adaptive capability is the seam tracking welding robot, the use of early vision systems to “see” the precise orientation of a workpiece so that the robot can adjust to it and the use of sensors to perform rudimentary QC so robots can sort the articles they are handling.

“As the sensory technologies increase in capability, speed of processing become less costly, and as they become more and more integrated within the robot’s controls, this combination will fuel the rapid adoption of this next genre of robotics,” he told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

Despite the many benefits robotics can provide, Wong cautions against “shoehorning robots into every application as there can be more efficient and cost effective solutions available.”

“People need to be able to maximise their automation and robotic technology to the best of its capacity. When selecting the most appropriate technology to automate a task, it is prudent to review available technologies for the best match for the task at hand,” he said.

“It may be, particularly when that manufacturing task is never going to change that much, that there are non-robotic solutions that are much more efficient and cost effective.”

Adrian Fahey CEO of Sage Automation agrees, and says one of the key responsibilities of any automation company is to actually apply the technology responsibly.

“Certainly you can automate everything but there’s a degree of ROI you need to consider as well.

“There will always be a degree of work that will need to be performed manually; as advanced as automation systems already are, they will never be as flexible as a person and the need or cost to automate that will out weigh the benefits it can provide,” Fahey told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

He advises there a number of things manufacturers should consider before automating any part of their process.

“It’s important to have a clear idea about where they see their production needs and where they see these needs in the future.

“Also what sort of flexibility is required? One of the advantages that robots offer over more traditional special purpose machinery, is high degrees of flexibility.

“If a customer has a facility which needs to be flexible, or will be in the immediate future, then a robot certainly would be able to cater for these requirements,” he said.

Price vs. Application

Industrial robots have a number of natural advantages over fixed automation systems and both Fahey and Wong agree as the technology continues to become more refined, it will come down in price.

“Largely deriving from its success in being a flexible, general manipulator, as a result of continuous development over generations – industrial robots have become an almost mass-produced product, with a comparatively low cost,” Wong said.

Fahey also believes the changing role of robotics will see more systems catering for a wider range of applications.

“Traditionally robots have been used in high volume, low mix environments but now there is an increased focus – particularly in Australia – on high precision work and the removal of operators in a risky or benign process,” he said.

Fahey gives the example of a gingerbread manufacturer based in South Australia who installed a robotic system to automate the icing of its “Gingerbread Babies” product.

Utilising a vision system to identify the location and position of each biscuit – often coming out of the baking oven in random patterns – the robot is able to process this information and ice the babies accurately, within the allocated time frame.

“This is a good example of where robots are being taken on to do a task which requires a high accuracy from the start.

“This particular customer’s market share was increasing and they needed to be able to meet demand without increasing their workforce.

“Australian manufacturing is about being flexible and adaptable,” Fahey said.

“Smart manufacturing is going to be a big part of Australian manufacturing and certainly robotics will have an intrinsic role.”

Ultimately, according to Wong, the robotic and automation battle in the marketplace will ultimately be won or lost based on economics.

“Even though robots may not be the best match for every manufacturing task or application, if it is cheap enough, then its inefficient application would not matter – a person could afford to throw in a few extra robots just to get the job done,” he said.