Selecting the right robot

Wade Leslie, MD of robotics advisory service Robotize, has developed 12 golden rules for robot selection.

Precise, repetitive manual tasks are a classic cause of workplace injuries and lost productivity, making them the perfect job for robots. Still, just like their human counterparts, robots must be well-matched to their job descriptions.

Wade Leslie, MD of robotics advisory service Robotize has developed 12 golden rules for robot selection.

1. Production rates It is important to differentiate between average rates and instantaneous (peak) rates as the robot needs to be designed for both. Where there are large surges in production followed by a lull, it is possible to average out the rate with a buffer. Even fairly constant production rates must accommodate shifts, breaks and product changeover times.

2. System control The cost of an automated solution can vary greatly with the level of control. The robot teach pendant to start and stop the system and make product selection changes can keep the cost down but this typically requires well trained operators. Pushbuttons to start and stop the system from a workstation can simplify control somewhat but the ultimate solution may include interfacing to a SCADA system with remote monitoring at the production office.

3. Find the right supplier Leslie says Robotize clients are often surprised by the number of robotic suppliers in Australia and his website, www.robotize.com.au lists more than 50. He recommends considering: • The supplier’s area of expertise and whether it has completed similar projects in the past• Location • Preferred brand• Whether a small company with low overheads where you deal directly with the owner is best or a national systems provider with a large support network and many project managers and service people to guarantee support in any situation.

4. Essential functions A manual process often includes steps that are not required for an automated process but Mr Leslie warns against overlooking the simple yet invaluable human elements. “Some parts in your process are not a core function but do need to be managed. For example, do your operators check for leaking products as they pack them?”The system’s functional requirements should be documented in a “functional specification” and included in the tender package.

5. Specific requirements for components Specifying brands and models can minimize spare part inventories and maintenance training costs. Typically, Leslie says, companies specify their preferred PLC, electrical components and pneumatic components. “Your robotic automation supplier might also have their own preference for these components, and often are able to offer better pricing if you go with their preferred brands.”

6. Redundancy If the system has a back up, check whether it is a fully automatic back up or a manual contingency in the case of a breakdown. While it may not make sense to invest heavily in a fully redundant system for non-critical production, a few hours of downtime every few months might justify the extra capital cost.

7. Ease of installation Can the installation take place over a number of weeks without interrupting production or is it important that the robotic equipment be installed and running in just a few days? This will have an impact on the system design and cost.

8. Insist on a FAT Leslie says most robotics integrators conduct Factory Acceptance Tests (FAT). “A FAT is your chance to look at the robotic system, make sure the key functions work correctly and ensure you are confident the solution will work before it is delivered to your factory. Changes are much easier and cheaper to make at the FAT then after the equipment is installed.”

9. Post-project support Be sure the supplier has adequate personnel to support the robot on an ongoing basis. The level of support can range from a technician on site to help while staff members adjust to the new equipment to remote monitoring for an instant response to breakdowns.

10. KISS — Keep it simple Complicated solutions inevitably lead to more project risk and greater maintenance headaches in the long run, according to Leslie. Better utilization of robots and implementation of vision systems where practical can reduce complicated fixtures and tooling.

11. Specifications Have a concise well-written specification before going out to tender.

12. Sign-off protocol The supplier should have a clear understanding of buyers’ expectations and how success is measured.

“The implementation of robotic automation when done correctly can reduce operating costs, improve quality, reduce waste, and help your company’s overall competitiveness,” Leslie says.

“Finding the right supplier and getting the project scope right are the first steps to reaping those rewards.”

Typical applications for robotic technology include loading and unloading systems, conveyors, case packing systems, high-speed picking, palletizing, coding and labelling, automatic guided vehicles, and truck loading.

Robotize will demonstrate a range of robots at Melbourne Materials Handling at the Melbourne Exhibition Centre from April 20 to 22. The Safety Institute of Australia will host the concurrent Safety in Action conference at the Melbourne Convention Centre. For more information, www.melbmaterialshandling.com.au, email safety@aec.net.au or phone Australian Exhibitions & Conferences on 03 9654 7773.