Derek Williams, Brenton Midwest Regional Sales Manager
Using robotic arms as a form of industrial automation, has been on the top of mind recently but the trend itself is not new. Since the 1970s, use of robotic arms in industrial settings have been on the rise. They are effective at simulating the complex movements of a human arm, yet they can handle substantially higher payloads and can be implemented in areas humans cannot. A well-built, properly programmed robot can be accurate, precise, and repeatable during its operation. The flexibility of tasks a robot can accomplish is typically greater than what other automation solutions can offer. Among other reasons, it is easy to see why robots have gained popularity.
What is new, is the increased number and types of applications that robotic arms can be used to automate operations that previously would not show a positive return on investment. With the advent of collaborative robots (or cobots), the increasing labor shortage, and the focus on operator safety, industries outside of automotive are seeing large increases in new installations and applications. While it is exciting to bring new cost-saving technology into your plant, we would like to discuss a few basic robotic integration principles and provide guidelines to how to select an integrator.
Who is involved in automation?
For purposes of this post, ‘robotic integration’ is referring to a work cell in which a robot has been included to accomplish a specific task with the support of the surrounding equipment. To accomplish the final automation, typically three distinct parties are involved. These parties are 1) company benefiting from the automation, 2) the robotic integrator, and 3) robotic arm manufacturer.
The robot itself is manufactured by a separate company than the one accomplishing the integration. It’s expertise in is the robotic arm itself and the software used to operate it. They often work with a network of integrators worldwide to help increase the install base of their robots and provide feedback on the real-world use of the robots in the various applications.
The robotic integrator, on the other hand, works with the company requiring the automation to design a robotic integration to meet their requirements. This integrator is responsible for sourcing the robot, designing the work cell both mechanically and electrically, and programming the robot.
What is important in a robot manufacturer?
At Brenton, we strongly suggest that our customers deploy robots from robotics companies with a strong training/support program. These training programs help to teach operators how to support the robot themselves (whether the operators are at the integrator level or at the end user). Global presence is a ‘plus’, as well. A wide breadth of robot offerings is usually a positive aspect, as it will generally help to avoid an under- or over-utilized robot by offering a well-suited robot for each application. Another item to consider is the market(s) the robot offerings from a company serve. If the robotic manufacturer has a strong presence in your market or industry, they also understand the specific environmental conditions or other needs specific to that industry as well.
How do I select an integrator?
Robotic integrators come in all shapes and sizes and it can be difficult to understand who to select for any given project. Typically, we recommend evaluating the integrator’s experience both in robotic integration and your specific market/application, the certifications they hold from the robotic manufacturer and the industry, and finally how well they partner with you to understand your specific application.
Integrators with extensive experience will bring that to your automation efforts. They will know what works well and what does not. Something seemingly as simple as the pedestal which mounts the robot can be very important to its operation, and an experienced integrator will have learned exactly how to design this.
Most integrators are usually certified by a robot manufacturer. This means their designers and service technicians have been properly trained to choose the correct robot for the application and trained to properly troubleshoot/service them if the need arises.
Finally, look for an integrator that is a subject matter expert. They will review the specific operation to see how their past experience can translate into a new automation solution for your plant. They will act as a consultant, not just as a vendor.
What are the most common robots used in secondary packaging?
Pedestal robots combine several (vertical) rotational motion axes with one linear motion axis to accomplish high-speed pick-and-place operations. Delta robots typically use three rotational axes controlling linkages which move an end effector sometimes containing a fourth rotational motion axis. These are also often used for high speed pick-and-place applications.
For end-of-line packaging, the most commonly integrated robots are 4-, 5-, and 6-axis robotic arms. Usually, the robot best suited for the application is one which has the least number of axes necessary for accomplishing the task required. 4-axis robotic arms are often using in palletizing applications in which boxes are picked from a conveyor and placed to a pallet.
Only four axes are necessary to keep the end-of-arm tool parallel to the floor while allowing motion in all X-Y-Z directions. Sometimes a fifth and sixth axis is added to the robot to accomplish slightly more intricate tasks like picking from an inclined/declined conveyor or picking pallet slip sheets from a magazine.
Robotic arms are also commonly used in case packing applications.
These are usually smaller arms than those used in palletizing, and most are specified with six axes. The robot is used to pick individual products or arrays of products and place them into the box. The six axes allow the product to be manipulated in ways which allow for easier loading into boxes which are not always ‘square’.
Collaborative robots deserve a mention here. Many applications which use a standard robotic arm are now being converted over to collaborative robots in which the guarding of a cell can be eliminated or greatly reduced. These highly sensitive robots will allow operators to enter the area near the robot without risk by sensing if the arm has contacted an object and immediately stopping movement.
Brenton is a Fanuc Authorized System Integrator with over 750 robotic placements.
Our robotic cells accomplish case packing, palletizing, and many custom operations. With this experience comes a trusted partner and advisor. If you have questions or would like a project consultation, please give us a call.