For Michael Goldin, an architect and industrial designer, outsourcing to China has never been an option. He's in the business of producing ultra-ergonomic workstations designed and configured for each individual customer.
That means producing a range of infinitely adjustable joints and assembling each desk, workstation or shelving system one at a time, with minimal duplication.
Goldin's company, Swerve, based out of Berkeley, Calif., follows a strict just-in-time production model that manages to keep its stock at a bare minimum, while maintaining affordable labor costs. All that is made possible through the purchase of a robot, which in tandem with a CNC machine, works 24 hours a day, allowing Swerve to move from design, to prototyping, fabrication, and production completely in house.
Ten years ago, a small- to medium-sized company like Swerve would never have been able to afford an industrial robotics system. But over the last decade, the technology has grown both smaller in size and cost, while improvements in sensing have enabled use in many more applications.
"You've seen a real trend in these last few years where the shrink in cell size of robots has allowed them to be utilized in areas we never could before," says Stephen Jones, General Motors' lead engineer for machine vision and robot technology for its casting, engine and transmission center unit.
As an example, Jones cites the development of vision guided systems. Although GM has long utilized robotics in its processes, the limitations were considerable.
"It used to be that our parts had to be presented absolutely perfectly to the robot for it to accept the part and do its job," says Jones. "Today, that's completely changed. The part only has to be in the vicinity, then the camera takes over and the robot picks it up."
The speed with which robots can process applications, and the increased weight they can carry, has enabled a wider range of use. According to Laxmi Musunur, manager of Fanuc Robotics' material handling division, robots can pick a part, place it and be ready for the next part in under a second.
"These new systems have allowed us to handle weight and manipulate it in space with great repeatability and accuracy," says GM's Jones. "We're using [robotic systems] in our foundries to handle engine castings and their core package. That core package can often weigh more than the engine itself."
Fosters Bakery, located in Barnsley, Yorkshire, England, invested in Fanuc's M-710ia for loading and unloading baked products to a reel oven. Fosters' oven shelves continually move, making it virtually impossible for a single operator to unload a full tray of products and replace it with dough. Implementing the robot system, however, changed this, allowing the bakery to nearly double its production capacity.
But advances in sensing technologies have enabled tactile and proximity sensors to search for the start position of a weld or cut. More importantly, the software has become infinitely more programmable.
"Historically, people stood in front of a computer punching in the code for hours at a time," says Mark Oxlade, manager for ABB Robotics' welding division. "But it's simplified dramatically."
W.M. Inc., a manufacturer of pulleys in Washingtonville, Ohio, uses a welding automated system to weld 7-gauge to 9-gauge steel for over 300 variations of product. According to Oxlade, W.M. is able to simulate and program its robots offline without shutting down production.
"The programs can install a robot controller to a PC, which increases the reliability and accuracy of the output," says Oxlade. "Programming offline produces all the path, logic and process instructions for individual parts."
Robots are also being widely deployed in material-removal applications. While they might never compare with CNC machines in terms of peeling off large chunks of metal, they are well-suited for tasks such as finishing and polishing, along with deburring, grinding and brushing, according to Fanuc's Masunur. In this way, robot systems have emerged as a cost-effective alternative to large CNC machines.
"The key is the flexibility," says Dr. Bhaskar Dutta, COO of POM Group, a firm based in Detroit that produces molds, patterns and dies for metal and plastic components using direct metal deposition. "If you compare the flexibility of a robotic system with a CNC machine, it's tremendous. They have good accuracy and it's getting better. Even a couple years ago, you couldn't get a robot that could give the kind of accuracy that we need for our processes."
That accuracy is only improving with time, says Rush La Selle, director of worldwide sales and marketing for Adept Technologies. As sensor technology improves and robots learn to respond and adjust to unplanned situations, their functions for new applications will only increase.
"The technology is now to a place where the robot through sensory technology should be able to act in the same way a person does in adjusting, fitting and customizing their work," says La Selle. "Robots now have the ability to adapt to their environment and utilize tremendously vast amounts of information. That's why I believe robots are going to be a bridge between the digital and the physical."
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