A plug-and-play approach to cobot development enables collaborative robots to be used more widely for manufacturing.
With severe labour shortages being experienced in manufacturing industry, particularly in the USA, collaborative robots (Cobots) are becoming more sought after to lend a hand (or end-effecter) with some of the more complex tasks.
When manufacturers can’t staff tasks on their production lines, it severely affects the bottom line resulting in drastic increases in overtime, cycle time and downtime. With the underlying US unemployment rate having been at 3.5 percent before the coronavirus crisis, the lowest in 50 years, with 10,000 experienced employees retiring every day and few millennials interested in joining manufacturing industry, companies are increasingly looking at automation to solve production challenges.
Such an environment signals the beginning of the Cobot era when the technology starts to become more pervasive in tackling ergonomically unfavourable, repetitive and even technically complex tasks that manufacturers can’t staff.
An example of the way cobots are being used in fast-paced, complex distribution systems at manufacturing plants is the Columbia/Okura miniPAL, a mobile palletising product powered by the Universal Robots UR10e cobot arm. The flexible miniPAL with a low footprint can palletise at two pallet locations for optimised operations. The latest design includes two safety mats and two area scanners that detect when people enter the work envelope. This means that the system can be used in cobot or robot modes, allowing it to meet even higher operating speeds when not in collaborative mode, when it needs to account for the presence of a human workforce. The system simply plugs into a wall socket, can be set up in less than a day and delivers an average payback between 8 and 10 months.
According to Brian Hutton, president of Columbia/Okura, the partnership between Columbia/Okura and Universal Robots allows the two companies to provide a safe and economical palletising system to clients who are facing workforce shortages, many of whom may also be new to factory automation.
“With the introduction of a collaborative palletiser, employees can be reassigned to work on higher value, less strenuous and more complex tasks where their time and skills are better served,” he says.
Augmented Reality Quality Control
Many manufacturers are still using hand tools like calipers, micrometers or height gauges for parts measurement, causing consistency problems. While some have started to use 3D scanners, they have lacked the measurement tools to go with the scanners.
“In recent years we’ve seen businesses try to automate metrology, and it takes a long time – anywhere from six months to a year or more to implement, which negatively impacts a business,“ says Rohit Khanna, president of automated inspection systems specialist 3D Infotech.
The innovative UMA inspection and quality control station is a semi-automated inspection system driven by 3D Infotech’s Streamline software. For performing the inspection process, it uses 3D scanners added to the end of UR5e and UR10e cobot arms for advanced Scan-to-CAD comparison and inspection capabilities, including GD&T (Geometric Dimensioning and Tolerancing).
As an aid to inspectors and quality technicians that work with the machine, a 3D Infotech projector is mounted on the cobot arm, projecting inspection results back onto the part through the company’s Spotlight AR++ software, an augmented reality solution that guides operators through workflows and provides visual instructions directly on to the part. In this way complex or low volume components can be directly compared to the 3D CAD blueprints directly at the workstation with images projected onto the part itself.
A recent UMA station customer, Royal Technologies, needed to scan a wide range of parts. “Some operators would miss certain features of the part, resulting in rejects being passed through inspection. Now we catch anything that is of poor quality. To summarise, it has improved speed, quality and overall performance,” says Trevor Lipsey, launch coordinator at Royal Technologies.
Modular Cell Machine Tending
Machine tending is one of the most common collaborative robot applications. Howeverm according to Universal Robots, despite widespread use, each application requires a somewhat customised robot cell to unlock the full value potential.
UR partner, Vention accelerates the time-to-market for such systems with its fully customisable machine tending cells. One example is Vention’s machine tending drawer system that holds parts for a UR5e cobot to pick for machining. Compared to a tray set-up, the drawer system extends the period of autonomous machine tending, as the UR5e simply pulls out a new drawer with more stock once the first drawer is emptied.
Vention also makes use of the UR10 cobot, which uses the company’s MachineMotion controller. This enables the cobot to control up to three external drives/actuators in parallel, including ball-screw actuators, belt-driven actuators, rack & pinion actuators and rotational indexers, directly from the Universal Robots pendant.
According to Vention’s Patrick Halde, Universal Robots and Vention are working towards lowering the automation barrier by reducing upfront investment in time and resources, and accelerating time-to-market.
This provides manufacturers with easier access to cobot technology without the need to develop in-house expertise. “We allow our common customers to get from design to fully functional robot cells in a matter of days,” says Halde.
These examples of production assembly, inspection and distribution demonstrate the pervasiveness of Cobots as the technology now comes to the fore across manufacturing industry to combine human operations with automation in novel ways.
This has become possible and more accessible in part due to the trend towards the use of software products, APIs and plug-and-play concepts like the UR+ enabling software infrastructure from Universal Robots.
UR+ is certified for plug-and-play integration with UR cobots and is growing rapidly, now featuring over 200 UR+ products with more than 400 companies in the UR+ developer programme. Vention is one example of a company that employs this approach with its cloud-based 3D CAD that allows users to easily design, simulate and commission a complete robot cell in as little as three days.
According to Stu Shepherd of Universal Robots, the constant innovation in the use of collaborative robots throughout industry is being enabled by such products as the UR platform.
“This is a great testament to the versatility and relevance of the technology,” he concludes.