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New Roles For Robots

New Roles For Robots

Once viewed largely as a way to save on labor costs, robots today have taken on more significant roles in manufacturing. They're part of global competitiveness plans and are seeing, moving and servicing better than ever.

Get ready for new robot relevance. When General Motors Corp. deployed the first industrial robots in 1961, their roles at a Ternstedt, N.J., plant were justified in terms of handling the 3-D tasks -- dangerous, dirty and difficult. In contrast, today's smarter, more capable robots have also become significant tools affecting global competition. For tomorrow's manufacturing winners, the competitive determinant will be how robots fit into a total manufacturing/automation strategy -- not just labor cost.

Start with a new definition.

"Think of industrial robots as a business strategy tool, one that helps build manufacturing competitiveness in a global economy," advises Rick Schneider, president and CEO of Fanuc Robotics America Inc., Rochester Hills, Mich. "Robotic technology impacts and delivers more than just departmental benefits."

In a "Save Your Factory" campaign, Schneider urges North American manufacturers to strategically focus on quality, cost effectiveness, productivity and profitability. "Six Sigma, robot-integrated automation and lean manufacturing are important tools in global competitiveness."

Foster-Miller Talon Robot
New roles, new configurations, new value. Examples from Foster-Miller include the RF controlled Talon robot for military missions (above) and the company's Pipe Mouse (below). Payload range in pipes: up to 2,000 feet.
Foster-Miller Pipe Mouse
Fanuc Robotics highlighted the risks of off-shoring at its February "Save Your Factory" forum.

Held at the company's Rochester Hills, Mich., facility, the event brought together seven leading organizations to share best practices and explore alternatives to off-shoring. The event included insight and real-world success stories from Schneider; Kevin Smith, executive director, American Axle & Manufacturing; Ken Rogers, executive director, Automation Alley; Eric Mittelstadt, CEO, National Council for Advanced Manufacturing; John Burg, CEO, Automated Concepts; Bruce Lindgren, vice president, Daco Inc.; and Jim Torline, manager of manufacturing engineering, Rotary Lift. The speakers shared ideas and examples to help manufacturers remain competitive, profitable and ahead of their respective markets.

One conclusion: Self-defeating off-shore strategies frequently include misunderstandings about robots and other automation technologies.

For example, don't forget that cost cutting can be the significant benefit of automation and that such potential should be evaluated, Schneider advises. One of his examples comes from Lincoln Electric, the Cleveland-based manufacturer and supplier of arc welding equipment, robot welding systems and plasma and oxyfuel cutting equipment.

One of Lincoln's customers believed the only way to reduce arc welding costs was to move the manufacturing operation overseas -- specifically China. Lincoln analyzed U.S. cost performance with what would be possible in China. In the U.S. with manual methods, the customer's per-part cost was 84 cents verses 30 cents for China. But with robots, U.S. costs were also 30 cents.

Further analysis revealed other benefits with robotic automation: one minute and 23 seconds of weld time was reduced to only 61 seconds with significantly higher quality and improved process control. The cost, quality and lead-time benefits convinced Lincoln Electric's customer. The final decision: Invest in robotics automation and keep the manufacturing process in the U.S.

"This example demonstrates how robotic welding can reduce manufacturing costs and improve efficiency, [even] exceeding cost standards set by low-cost labor countries such as China," says Schneider.

Also consider the risk potential of such things as shipping delays and long-distance quality management, he adds. Other hidden hazards: inventory challenges, government instability, currency/exchange issues, communications/language barriers and long lead-time.

His premise: the future of manufacturing ultimately rewards the country that most effectively adopts the best practices such as automation, lean manufacturing and Six Sigma quality programs. The winners are not necessarily those areas with the lowest labor wages.

"Our 'Save Your Factory' message is clear -- there are alternatives to plant closings and moving off-shore. With automation and robots, North American manufacturers can build profitability and competitiveness while controlling risks in the global market."

From Rigid Automation To Flexibility

The evolution of robot capabilities is offering growing opportunities to manufacturing strategies. One example is vision, says Ford Motor Co.'s Frank Maslar, an automation specialist in Advanced Manufacturing Technology Development, Detroit. He notes that the use of robot vision can simplify production processes and investments and turn rigid automation into flexible systems.

Equipped with the TrueView vision system, an ABB robot is able to recognize and react to variations in part location.
Because conventional robots are sightless, parts handling requires precision fixturing or dunnage to assure successful, repetitive presentation of parts to the robot's grippers. With vision, robots can routinely adjust to variations in part placement. The significant issue here is adaptability. "The more adaptable an assembly line becomes, the more valuable a production facility becomes in the future," says ABB's Dion Spurr, engineering manager, Robot Automation Group, Auburn Hills, Mich. The vision-guided robots at Ford are the result of robot vendor ABB's teaming with vision specialist Braintech Inc., Vancouver, British Columbia. Maslar says the technology, now marketed as ABB's TrueView system, analyzes one image from a robot-mounted camera and calculates the 3-D position of the part to be manipulated.

Maslar says the technology is unique in that typical vision-guided robot systems require the use of two or more cameras or images to calculate accurate part position in 3-D. "The single camera approach has many benefits over multi-camera systems including robustness, improved maintenance, ease of calibration, processing speed and system integration."

Ford deployed the system to handle cylinder heads. Maslar says the first implementation, in 2003, was followed by 30 additional systems in Ford Powertrain Operations. In 2003 Ford corporate recognized the technology's strategic significance with the Henry Ford Technology Award, part of the company's effort to provide greater management attention to, and recognition of, exceptional technical contributions by employees. (Of the approximate 100 nominations submitted each year, about 15 are recognized.)

In addition to eyes, industrial robots are also gaining mobility, notes Braintech's Detroit-based Jim Dara, vice president, sales and general manager for North America. He's referring to several recent implementations of rail-mounted Braintech-equipped robots. With the help of their vision systems, the robots glide up and down tracks as long as 30 feet. Dara pictures the future as approaching anthropomorphic ideals -- a mobile, rail mounted system with the vision camera serving as a 'head' and two robot arms that perform, assisted by the vision system.

According to the Automated Image Association, the market for vision-guided robots in material handling and assembly (software, robots and integration) exceeds $2 billion per year on a global basis. Moreover, in 2000 the world machine vision market was $6.2 billion -- addressing just 10% of potential robotic applications -- with forecasted growth expected to exceed 20% per year through 2006.

Evolving Applications

Joe Engelberger wonders if relegating robotic technologies to only industrial applications makes any sense. "The biggest market will be service robots," asserts Engelberger, who started the industrial ball rolling in 1961 when his firm (Unimation) delivered GM's first robot.

Joe Engleberger
Joe Engelberger, the father of industrial robots, says it's time for service robots to make their mark. The CAD model below is the inspiration for RoboCare models he's proposing for care of the elderly. Per hour cost: $1, he says.
RoboCare CAD model
"It's time for service robots," the father of robotics stresses. To get the service ball rolling, Engelberger, after selling Unimation to Westinghouse in the 1980s, started a company that produced the Helpmate, a robotic courier that roams hospital corridors delivering supplies.

Pyxis Corp., a subsidiary of Cardinal Healthcare eventually became the owner, and Engelberger is now trying to "revive" Isaac, a more elaborate service robot concept he helped NASA develop. "On wheels with vision, sensory feedback and two arms, Isaac has the technology to solve the growing health care service needs of the elderly," Engelberger says.

To bring Isaac to commercial health care reality, Engelberger proposes the creation of RoboCare Inc. The prospectus notes that "in the U.S. 85 is the fastest growing age in our population, and nearly all harbor some disabilities. We project live-in robotic health care to cost less than $1 per hour."

Is the global robot population, now nearly a million, poised for rapid growth with new applications in the service sector? Engelberger confesses that the service robot message is as hard a sell as was the industrial robot he championed with Unimation. However, some robot experts believe that service-oriented designs will influence how robots are designed for industrial applications.

If service applications do pervade the core of 21st century robotics, credit the Pentagon with an influential role. Robotic devices are beginning to transform the military into a futuristic, high-technology force.

In combat situations, vision guided robots, networked into information technology systems, will provide the strategic advantage and protect lives. One example is the radio-controlled Talon, a small track-mounted vehicle made by system integrator Foster-Miller Inc., Waltham, Mass. Resembling a little tank, the Talon can substitute for personnel in hazardous situations, says Ed Goldman, senior vice president.

Talon's first iteration goes back about a decade when the Air Force requested a means of picking up and moving unexploded ordnance. Originally called the Ferret, Talon was used by the Air Force and several police departments.

A second version was then designed with gun-firing capability. Using the vision system, remotely located operators are able to view and fire at targets. Foster-Miller also offers a military version that can swim and crawl along the ocean floor, says Goldman.

In addition to developing unique robots for military and commercial users, Foster-Miller functions as a systems integrator that engineers unique applications using currently available commercial robots.

Some of the leading industrial robot vendors are also beginning to provide service solutions. One example is RoboBar, a complete, self-contained robotic bar from Motoman Inc., West Carrollton, Ohio.

Motoman's Robobar
Available with a male or female personality, Motoman's RoboBar is said to outpour and outdraw the competition -- all for about 30 cents per hour operating costs. Plus, it doesn't drink on the job or dip into the till -- and smoke doesn't bother it, the company adds.
RoboBar features a UPJ dual-arm robot with a compact NXC100 controller housed in the base of the robot. The two manipulators each have five axes of motion, and the base also rotates to provide an 11th axis of motion. The end-of-arm tooling consists of simple parallel grippers. Operating cost (for electricity) is about 30 cents per hour, says Ron Potter, Motoman's senior director of emerging robot products. He says the standard design allows RoboBar to be retrofitted into an existing bar setup. Motoman introduced RoboBar in February at the Las Vegas Nightclub and Bar Show.

Potter was involved with RoboBar even before joining Motoman to expand robot applications, recalls president and COO Craig S. Jennings. Originally conceived with one arm, Potter and Jennings adopted the two-arm design after seeing a two-armed solution Motoman's Japanese parent, Yaskawa Electric Corp. devised for Toyota.

"One arm was too slow, so we borrowed a solution that successfully used one control to handle two arms," adds Jennings. (Track-mounted, Yaskawa's two-armed solution for Toyota loads and unloads multiple machine tools.)

Jennings describes a different service application at a proton cancer treatment facility near Indiana University: "We have two robots, one in the floor that engages a patient's bed to position the patient to receive a proton blast. The second robot takes a x-ray to verify the cancer location and signals the first robot to precisely adjust patient location to best receive the proton blast." Jennings says the system could be a standard solution for all cancer treatment and solve emergency room challenges.

Intelligent assist robots are another Motoman initiative with service implications. Soon to debut at a Honda plant in Japan, the device is designed to augment, not replace, human effort in lifting heavy objects. "The challenge for the service and industrial robotic future is to use technology to support intimate coexistence," adds Jennings. "More and more we will have a need for robots and people working within the same space."

Motoman is also studying how it can help equipment-makers add robot-like functionality with actuators. The idea is to offer a robot capability that designers can easily integrate into a piece of equipment.

Meanwhile another leader in industrial robotics sees future potential in amusement park rides. At last year's AUTOMATICA trade fair in Germany, the parent of KUKA Robotics Corp. (KUKA Roboter GmbH, Augsburg, Germany) exhibited the latest version of its Robocoaster.

Visitors at the KUKA booth saw a robot arm with a gondola on the end of its arm with safety harnesses and seating for two people. The latest version offers passengers freely programmable startling combinations of loop-the-loop, wild rotations and breathtaking rotations. More than 40 have been sold.

For industrial applications, the company recently introduced a carbon fiber composite robot designed to boost productivity for medium payload palletizing applications. PalletTech software helps simplify programming, says KUKA's Kevin Kozuszek, marketing manager, Clinton Township, Mich.

Global Demand Growing

Globally, robot sales suggest that investments in automation to increase competitiveness is on the rise. For example, in 2004 North American robot makers saw big gains in orders from companies outside the continent, reports Donald A. Vincent, executive vice president, Robot Industry Association (RIA), Detroit.

RIA's statistics indicate that in 2004, orders from outside North America totaled 1,291 robots valued at $65 million, an increase of 152% in units and 78% in revenue. (For example Fanuc Robotics' Schneider reports a substantial increase in orders from China for robotic painting systems the company produces in Michigan.) Overall new orders for 2004 totaled 16,120 robots valued at $1.06 billion, for gains of 25% in units and 16% in revenue.

Vincent is cautious in comparing North America's 2004's gains with the 2003 gains when North American robotics orders grew 19%. "Such large gains can't be expected for every year."

First quarter results, however, indicate the industry may be on a roll. Orders were up 30% in North America making the first quarter the best ever. Another way to gauge interest is by visits to RIA's Web site ( Site visits, at 90,000 in the first quarter were up 47% over last. Vincent reports a total of 5,316 robots valued at $302.5 million were ordered by North American manufacturing companies in the January-March period. An additional 272 robots valued at $18 million were ordered by manufacturing companies outside North America.

Automotive continues as the dominant customer, accounting for about 70% of the orders in the first quarter. In non-automotive sectors, strong growth was seen in primary metals (up 63%) and food and consumer goods (up 33%).

MIT Kismet
Is the sociable robot next? Kismet, an early effort of MIT's Artificial Intelligence research is now "retired" at the MIT museum. Kismet is shown here with MIT researcher Cynthia Breazeal.
Material handling, the largest robotic application, posted a 67% gain over the first quarter 2004 results. Arc welding applications jumped 76% and coating/dispensing orders rose 49%.

RIA estimates that some 147,000 robots are now being used in factories in the U.S. Vincent says that there are thousands of small and midsize companies, as well as large companies in many industries, that have yet to install their first robot. "Though robots have been used in the U.S. for over 40 years, we have still only scraped the surface of potential applications," Vincent says. "Each day, as an awareness of robotic benefits spreads, new companies are taking a close look at robots to see if they make sense in their company."

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