Implementation of the latest automation technology, including robots, can result in new levels of productivity, quality and competitiveness, says Richard Johnson, general manager, material handling segment, Fanuc Robotics America Inc. The key comes from recognizing that the state of factory robotics has advanced considerably in recent years. Notable developments include the following:
- Loosely located parts can be handled. An increasing number of systems are using 2-D vision as an alternative to expensive fixtures. Some robot controllers even have vision systems as a standard option without the need for an external PC.
- Large parts can be handled. The maximum payload that a robot can handle continues to rise, with some robots able to handle 700 kg. If you couple this with dual arm robots, it is possible to handle a 1,400-kg payload.
- Large work envelopes are no problem. For many years robots have been placed on linear slides to increase the work range. Now robots can be placed on overhead rails that only require columns every 10 meters. This allows the plant work area to remain largely open while still allowing rail travel of up to 70 meters.
Non-auto applications are a key focus. The Robotic Industries Association reports that from the first quarter of 2005 to the same time in 2006, non-auto applications grew from 30% to 40% of all applications. If your focus is non-automotive, you should understand that much of the product and application development might be targeted at your area.
Richard Johnson, general manager, material handling segment, Fanuc Robotics America Inc.
- ROI measures need to be updated. Many plants still use a "double standard" for capital equipment ROI. Certain capital, like machine tools, apply "useful life" calculations, while automation and robots still use short paybacks, like one year. This results in the under-utilization of a very reliable piece of equipment with a life of seven to 10 years, and the flexibility to be re-applied.
- Bin picking is now possible. The use of 3-D vision allows robots to pick parts directly from a bin, particularly parts that have some rough orientation, such as being stacked.
- Higher cycle times are possible. Each new robot and controller design results in products that have higher speeds. When making expansion plans, check on the cycle times possible with the new generation of robots.
- Robots can compete with fixed automation. Robots have the payload and speed to compete with fixed automation and offer two key advantages. The first is increased reliability, which results in high plant yields. The second is flexibility to handle future products, which protects your investment.
- Benefits exceed labor savings. While first-time robot users typically justify an application on labor savings, there are the added savings of increased productivity and improved quality.
- Assembly tasks can be performed. The use of six-degrees-of-freedom force sensors means that robots can perform assembly tasks with larger 3-D parts that were not previously possible.