The process industry has spent billions of dollars on robots and robotic automation, but are these monoliths flexible enough for today’s manufacturing requirements, will they eventually take our jobs and will the human-less factory really become a reality?
its not new now its just different
Robot and human workforces are not new:
The earliest known industrial Robot, conforming to the ISO definition was completed by “Bill” Griffith P. Taylor in 1937 and published in Meccano Magazine, and widely accepted and in use in 1970s
While our ancestors have been around for about six million years, the modern form of humans only evolved about 200,000 years ago.
Lights out automated factories are not new, in fact they date back to the turn of the century, automated production lines operated by robots like at FANUC who have been operating a ‘lights out’ factory since 2001 with robots building robots unsupervised for as long as 30 days.
Process manufacturers too have been using robots and automation for decades to enable factories to minimize time and maximize yield and quality.
In the last 20 years I have seen automated machines, that can:
- measure and sort individual grains of rice,
- grade fruits and vegetables by size, color and ripeness,
- select and reject discolored or misshapen chips,
- fillet fish,
- peel pineapples,
- peel and shape carrots,
- provide cameras above lines for label verification
The list is long, and process manufacturers have been at the forefront of robotic technology because they had to. Small changes in yield, speed or quality has a dramatic effect on the bottom line, so robotic automation helped to provide that consistency of product and throughput.
SO, what’s changed?
Waste, Yield and Variety
Things are different now. Waste, flexibility and variety are taking center stage in the products that consumers demand and that’s where the robotic automation begins to struggle in many of the process manufacturing sectors.
What’s the big problem with robots? Well, robots have limitations…
Robots are not cheap. With automation lines running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and the task they perform is usually highly-focused and inherently inflexible and designed around a range of products. With variety on the rise, different packaging options are now often supported by human intervention as part of the process to overcome line inflexibility.
Handling irregular shaped products or raw materials is often mitigated by using humans to first orientate the product for the Robot to perform its task. However, advances in gripper technology, machine learning and artificial intelligence will inevitably help to rectify some of the weaknesses of today’s Robots.
There are examples of success with lettuce peeling robots, but a closer look at the numbers isn’t so exciting 27 seconds to peel and only 50 percent success. A breakthrough nonetheless.
The other problem is in many situations robotic lines are a compromise to yield. For example, hand filleting a fish produces 6 percent more yield than machine filleting. Preparing vegetables is often much worse as the product shape varies, but the machine settings are often static, cut deeper remove more to ensure quality and consistency!
Robots are also very powerful and fast moving and need to be kept separated from Humans, in cages or in isolated areas using proximity sensors for the health and safety of the workforce
So if these monolith solutions will not offer the flexibility and dexterity, what’s wrong with taking a “just throw human labor at it” approach? Well, we cost more. While initial investment is low, perhaps a coat, hat and gloves, maybe a mobile phone, after that it’s a wage bill, paying for humans to not be at work and even to go on holiday? Humans also suffer from fatigue and need to have breaks. There is also an anticipated shortage of workers, which is predicted to get worse.
what’s the solution?
Cobots were invented in 1996 by J. Edward Colgate and Michael Peshkin, professors at Northwestern University. A 1997 US patent filing describes cobots as “an apparatus and method for direct physical interaction between a person and a general purpose manipulator controlled by a computer.”
Cobots or Human/robot collaboration (HRC) is becoming more prevalent as agile lightweight robots with dexterity and flexibility enter the market. These cobots are less dangerous than classic caged robots as their power is low and their speed of motion slower. The benefit is that these robots do not need to be in cages but can be integrated into the production environment.
Cobots are perfect for carrying out monotonous and ergonomically adverse tasks, doing this repetitively without making mistakes.
Typical fields of application are:
- handling of materials and products between different process stages
- pick, place and deposit applications
- ‘learn to follow’ applications, where the Cobot is taught to move along a predefined motion path, for example, when cutting or decorating pastries and cakes.
So Cobots have the advantage of the robot. They don’t get bored, but they have a much lower initial cost and are flexible and can be moved around and configured for different tasks. They don’t have to be kept in cages and they can work alongside humans. Cobots are becoming the most cost-effective solution for today’s flexible factories. They can perform the repeatable part of the process with accuracy and speed and the humans can manage the dexterity tasks, a marriage of bio and mechanical technology working in harmony.
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