GAMS preview: Integrating robotics into manufacturing

In preparation for the 2016 GAMS Conference on Sept. 14 in Chicago, CFE Media asked our panelists to discuss some of the key issues facing manufacturing. This is one in a daily series of articles.

By CFE Media August 17, 2016

The 2016 Global Automation and Manufacturing Summit (GAMS), presented by CFE Media, will bring together experts from all areas of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to look at not just the current state of IIoT but also at the potential benefits of deployment for the manufacturing industry.

The third GAMS conference takes place Wednesday, Sept. 14, beginning at noon. It is held in conjunction with the Industrial Automation North America (IANA) pavilion at the 2016 International Manufacturing Technology Show at McCormick Place in Chicago. The event is co-presented by Hannover Fairs USA.

In preparation for the 2016 GAMS Conference, CFE Media asked panelists Jose Rivera of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA), Rick Vanden Boom of Applied Manufacturing Technologhies, and Michael Lindley of Concept Systems to discuss some of the key issues facing manufacturing. This is one in a daily series of articles leading up to this year’s conference: 

CFE Media: Robotics is being integrated into many parts of the manufacturing plant. How do manufacturers identify where robots can be effectively used in the plant?

Rivera: Robots have come a long way, and more and more applications are becoming available to them. There is, of course, a cost-benefit analysis to be made to justify any investment. On the cost side you have to also include things like worker health-related issues, like work that demands highly repetitive motions or work in toxic environments. Allowing robots to take care of these tasks may reduce cost and work-related injuries.

Other potential areas to explore are those where increased speed has a significant impact on productivity. Robots have the potential to do work very fast.

Lindley: The most common guidance offered is to look for dull, dirty, or dangerous manufacturing processes. Although this is a simplistic approach it does force a company to acknowledge those tasks that are repetitive, that present an unsafe work environment based on regular exposure to hazards, or require a worker to be in close proximity to high-risk conditions. Those environments should be targeted first for analysis. Once an application is chosen, consider an ROI structure to quantify labor savings, work safety events, increase production, and reduce QA issues. Typically, companies are targeting a 2- to 3-year return on their investment. The added benefit of robots is that they are designed to operate for 10 to 12 years, considering that annual maintenance is performed. Companies can obtain their ROI in 2 to 3 years and potentially repurpose the robot multiple times within the equipment’s lifespan.

The price of robots has come down, and the quality of vision equipment has gone way up. As integrators, we work to make robots smart, in that we are looking to combine 2-D/3-D vision solutions with robotic capabilities. By doing so we are able to integrate solutions that will: put frosting on top of cakes, assemble rocket ships, manage molten steel, and deal with cast parts.

With that said, not all applications are designed for a robot, yet. Some part handling or bin picking applications can be too complex, or a part can have too many features to handle in a cost-effective manner. When we work with companies we simulate the proposed process using software provided by the leading robotic manufacturers. Often, we will bring in virtual representations of the work cell to ensure we can achieve reach, speed, and payload requirements. The simulation provides a client with a lot of confidence that the proposed solution will work.

Vanden Boom: Companies consider robotics (and automation in general) for these basic reasons: reduce costs, increase capacity, improve quality, and eliminate safety and ergonomic concerns. These reasons can be quantified, and the decision to automate most often comes down to a calculation of cost versus benefit.

CFE Media: What are the challenges when incorporating robotics in manufacturing? What do you see as the advantages?

Vanden Boom: There are a range of technical challenges, cost justification challenges, and human resource challenges in implementing robotics. Most can be overcome with careful planning and setting the correct expectations.

The advantages of robotics are many: cost reduction, increased capacity, improved quality, and improved workplace safety.

Rivera: Robots have been around us for a while, but the newer generations place robots in closer contact with humans. Safety cages are being eliminated, and in some cases robots begin to look more and more like a human. This has implications on the workers on the plant floor. Just like the challenges presented with any change, you can’t afford to underestimate the impact, and you need to manage this change.

Some of this is to be done with training, where the plant operators can see the benefits brought by robots and truly embrace the new technology. You need this ownership as deployment of new technology will require lots of fine-tuning, and operators need to be part of this fine-tuning effort.

Lindley: A common challenge that we see is first making sure the project pencils out. Companies can often get excited about the thought of a robot but overlook how to pay for it or have unrealistic expectations about ROI. If a project pencils in a year it is a no-brainer, but if the duration is 3 to 3 ½ years it could still be a great project considering the long-term usage of the robot. Companies also need to consider what other process changes a robot may present. Parts may need to be loaded and presented differently or conveyors need to be rearranged. A thorough work cell simulation will mitigate these risks. Robots have changed a lot in the last 5 years, and current offerings are easier to integrate and often cost less compared to their predecessors.

When done correctly, a robotic work cell presents significant advantages in worker safety, increased production capacity, and reductions in manufacturing costs.

CFE Media: We’ve discussed the issues of aging workforce and the Skills Gap for years. Are robots the answer to those issues?

Vanden Boom: Robotics will be part of the solution, and you will see our workforce change as well. More and more, people will be working alongside robots in collaboration rather than just being replaced by them.

Lindley: I think we will see a combination of both a changing labor force and ever increasing adoption of robots. For example, as people age out of machine maintenance positions those responsibilities will likely transition to an IIoT strategy where equipment auto-schedules its own upkeep. Machines will require less staff to maintain, with condition monitoring and interconnected systems drastically reducing unplanned downtime. I see this happening across industries—as people age out of repetitive or dirty jobs those tasks will be replaced by robots. Younger employees are less interested in those kinds of positions. With that said, I see tremendous opportunities for people who are competent with advanced technologies and understand how to maximize robotics and IIoT.

Rivera: Entire countries like Japan are betting the farm that robots will be able to help them cope with their aging population. Japan has a rapidly aging population, and they don’t view immigration as a viable option.

I personally view robots in the manufacturing space as the answer to the desire for the highest levels of customization and immediate availability, which encourages local production.

Need for change? Yes, an increasing presence of robots in the workplace is transforming the workforce in a big way. As robots are getting out of their "cages" and have begun to "mingle" with the workforce there will be a growing need for change management.

We don’t want to repeat the mistakes made in the 19th Century when English textile workers protested against newly developed labor-economizing technologies that threatened to replace them with less-skilled, low-wage laborers, leaving them without work.

CFE Media: What’s one area about introducing robotics into manufacturing that you think often gets overlooked?

Lindley: Quality assurance. I think it is very practical to have a small, collaborative robot working on a line to pick up and inspect parts. New 2-D/3-D vision technologies and the low price point of small robotics make this an ideal area to target. Plus, the ROI can be quite short when based on improved production throughput and reductions in instances of imperfect products being shipped.

Vanden Boom: When someone considers using a robot to perform a task currently performed by a person, very often they overlook some of the subtleties that the person may be adding to the process. For example, machine tending is a common application for both people and robots (loading parts to and from a machine). The action may be simple and easily done with a robot; however, it’s important to understand if the person is also inspecting the part-visually or by feel-or adjusting the angle of part presentation each time, etc.

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See additional coverage on IMTS 2016 and GAMS linked below.

Author Bio: Since its founding in 2010, CFE Media and Technology has provided engineers in manufacturing, commercial and industrial buildings, and manufacturing control systems with the knowledge they need to improve their operational efficiency. CFE delivers the right information at the right time around the world through a variety of platforms.