By Ákos Dömötör, CEO, OptoForce
May 30, 2018
Over the last decade, there have been significant improvements in industrial robotics to enhance manufacturing. One of the primary reasons for this has been the advancement of software.
Software has played a key role in helping to improve the intelligence of robots, leading to greater productivity across manufacturing. Software is now much easier to program and easier to integrate with robotic devices such as sensors. Part of this is also the development of simpler interfaces for users to program the robot.
Software is about making robots more intelligent. What that really means is that robots can react to their environment and change their intended actions if needed. If a product moves, they can feel that movement and react simultaneously in real time. If by chance a robot hits someone or something, they can adjust and correct given built-in controls.
Robots are also now much more collaborative. This means that they’re easier to work with and more precise. Robots can be placed on a production floor without having to manipulate an existing layout. They are not as big and rigid as they were in the past and can easily fit onto a production floor.
INDUSTRIAL ROBOTICS – PAST AND PRESENT
To fully appreciate where the industry is currently at, it’s important to understand a bit more about where we were prior to some of these recent technology advancements.
Robots were designed to do repetitive tasks very precisely. They were designed to be rigid and heavy so that even without sensing, they always arrived at the same position. This worked with metal parts with known dimensions in precise fixtures, but you couldn’t use robots if you needed variation in parts or positions. This is changing. Companies are now getting accustomed to expect robots to sense how their environment is different from the ideal CAD model and pre-designed plans and react accordingly. This might occur because parts move or change or the environment changes, but modern-day robots are more cerebral and can react to change dynamically and in real time.
Robot software should be written for all tasks, but sometimes there are difficulties that the programmer cannot easily solve. This can lead to delays in the project and higher costs than expected. A delayed project could also mean having to find an expensive alternative solution during this time. However, new improvements in software now reduce the time it takes to program an application and the risks associated with programming. When programmers rely on a tested software module, there is a better chance that they won’t run into unforeseen problems.
For example, force/torque sensors can have application specific software modules. Let’s consider insertion tasks. Say you wanted to insert a valve into an engine, where the tolerances are very tight, you can use a pin insertion function to establish parameters. Some pin insertion functions can automatically find the best orientation for the valve and make the robot insert it into the hole. The application can be setup very quickly and very easily, saving time and money, and improving functionality and quality. Typically, the software that comes with the robot and the robot manufacturer extends the capability of the robot. The applications that are now available can greatly improve a robot’s performance.
It’s also important to understand that different robot types use different languages, which are often proprietary. The robot comes with appropriate software from the robot manufacturer. Sometimes, the program modules can integrate tightly into the robot’s system. This means that you don’t need to learn any new programming language, just the one you are using for programming the robot. If you add a few new functions to that the work, it can be made even faster and easier.
The type of skills needed to work with robots vary, but today, the emphasis is generally on ease-of-use and performance. Newer robots tend to have an easier-to-use graphical interface, and there is a clear trend in making programming even simpler. This has already dramatically decreased automation costs and has made it possible and much easier to redeploy robots for new tasks. This trend will continue. In addition to writing software and creating interfaces that are easy-to-use, companies usually provide partner training, technical training, support, documentation, user guides, and videos.
In addition, firmware and software is everywhere now and couples closely with the hardware. The most important aspect from the users’ point of view is safety and the user interface. Through the user interface, we can program robots to have them move into different positions, give commands to external accessories and process the inputs from sensors. The toughest part is how to write a program that reacts to the environment in real time – the algorithms you need to use is really high-tech and is being researched at a lot of universities around the world.
IMPROVEMENT ACROSS THE ENTERPRISE
Clearly, a robot is there to do a job, and to make manufacturing tasks more productive. A lot of companies now use robots for quality control as well, as the robots will always carry out required tests to measure, record, and analyze the data. Some companies have added the capability for robots to report the measured values in real time through a company network or to save it at a local computer next to the robot.
Another function that can benefit from robots is human resources. Many companies struggle to find workforce for afternoon and night shifts, especially for tasks that require attention or are in an environment that some would choose to not work in. For example, polishing requires operators to pay attention to ensure they are exerting the right amount of force on the parts and don’t over or under polish the parts. But it is also very dusty and therefore a hard job to perform. Also, jobs that include either repetitive motion or weight-bearing tasks can be extremely hard on a body, which can increase sick time and injuries. If robots are used, a lot of these problems go away, thereby making HR’s job much easier. In short, robots work 24/7/365 and do not take sick time, vacation time, or personal time.
BENEFITS FROM AUTOMATION
As we have seen, there are numerous benefits that are derived from utilizing industrial robots. Here are three that a company can readily achieve:
Skill Deployment. One of the biggest benefits of automation is that it becomes easier to run a company. You want to ensure that you have the best people you can get and employ them in jobs that require creativity and good problem solving skills. Deploying industrial robots frees up workers to perform bigger, more strategic tasks that cannot be performed by a robot.
Global Competitor. Automation keeps a company competitive in a global environment. It helps to save jobs and keep a company viable that may otherwise have trouble competing and lasting.
Company Growth. Automation allows you to expand in different areas and employ more people as the company grows and becomes more profitable and competitive.
Robots are usually adaptive and can do most tasks, but it does depend on the intelligence level of the robot and the tasks required. If the manufacturing process is the same and consistent the robot doesn’t need a lot of oversight. But if the tasks vary or if the parts aren’t all the same size or make, then it could require more oversight. If the robot needs to adapt, it could very well have the necessary intelligence to do so. The goal is to setup a robot to operate 24/7/365 so that the robot is standardized and performing high quality, regimented work.
In the past, the person who oversaw the robot would be an engineer who understood the programming and software, but today, robots are easier-to-use and program and can be supervised by a technician. The key is to continue to make robots more intelligent. In fact, they are much more intelligent today than they were just a few years back, as robots can now do more tasks because the software is more intuitive and easier-to-install. And with new functions and applications from sensors – the intelligence of the robot can advance even more.
Of course, no analysis would be complete without taking a look at the financials. If you can automate your manufacturing environment with industrial robotics you can potentially achieve payback in one year’s time. The cost of automation continues to go down steadily and rapidly. This is because it’s easier and faster to program a robot. This translates to a cost decrease in integration, production, and training, but also enables more tasks that can be automated. The net gain is labor cost savings, higher quality, and greater corporate profitability.
Looking ahead, the biggest trend is robots being even easier to program, understand, use, and adapt. As robots continue to become more intelligent, we will see an increase of analytics and collaborative robotics. There will be a lot of software to allow for even tighter integration of robots into production lines. We will also see more robots that can rely on vision and touch sensing. All of these developments simply mean that the future for manufacturing is promising.
Ákos Dömötör is the CEO at OptoForce. Since 2014, Ákos has helped transform the company from an engineering-focused organization to a true global corporation. Leveraging the company’s expertise of developing technically-advanced sensors, he has strengthened its business strategy and management control systems and put forth a comprehensive customer relations program across international markets. From these efforts, OptoForce has become a recognized name and worldwide market leader in industrial robotics. The company’s 6-axis force/torque sensors are in high demand from companies looking to improve production operations through industrial robotics and automation.