With labor force participation slowly increasing and unemployment continuing to fall (as seen in the following chart with source data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics), help is wanted everywhere.
Likewise, the workforce in most factories is spread thin, and trying to prioritize work can lead to bottlenecks in production, and potentially, rushing jobs to stay caught up. This, however, can naturally lead to human error, increasing the risk of letting major flaws leak into the marketplace.
Many manufacturers from a wide range of industries have implemented the most advanced technologies and robotic automation solutions to combat part shortcomings, providing a level of consistency for greater quality control that humans cannot achieve. There are also those companies that choose to take a more conservative approach with fewer bells and whistles, where the full advantage of robotic automation may not be realized.
Quality Checks and Inspections
Automakers are not immune to worker error. Recently, a major car manufacturer recalled a small number of vehicles because of a human error that occurred in the process of programming a robotic welder. While strategic body frame welds were missed, all vehicles were accounted for without incident thanks to advancements in traceability technologies used in automation. However, this issue potentially could have been avoided altogether had lasers and cameras been attached to the robot arm for routine inspection of every part (rather than a sample).
Following Work Instructions
On the other hand, some manufacturers have complained about employees taking too much initiative, exercising creative liberties or making “guesstimates” of where parts should be welded or where screws should be placed. Implementing robotic automation can help manufacturers stick to their original plans, keeping parts consistent. The use of an HC10 collaborative robot, for example, can help ensure that the repeatability of a task, such as fastening screws or machining parts, is extremely accurate, without completely removing the human element that may be required for finessing work or adding ingenuity.
Robots will far exceed any human on repeatability. A highly-skilled welder will make very good welds again and again, but naturally, he or she cannot achieve 100% repeatability. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, finding multiple highly-skilled welders can be very difficult and expensive. If you task one accomplished welder to program a robot on the same weld, the robot will be nearly 100% repeatable and faster, keeping the human worker safe from being exposed to the hazardous environment. This also saves time and reduces waste on parts that may need to be scrapped due to human inconsistency.
Whether a machine is a robot, lawn mower, automobile or something else, it will most likely require maintenance. While most robots and positioners are quite easy to maintain, some manufacturers fail at keeping a routine schedule for robot maintenance. Yaskawa robots include automated maintenance logs and alarms that occur at needed intervals to make sure maintenance is completed, ensuring a long life on your capital investment. Failing to meet maintenance requirements on the robot (or with other capital equipment for that matter) can be detrimental to product quality, as well as achieving ROI within a given payback period.
To better facilitate maintenance schedules – and ultimately customer demands – some company leaders are going a step further, implementing factory automation monitoring systems
that easily monitor, accumulate and visually deliver data in real time via an integrated approach. This is providing the ability to synchronize all factory and operational knowledge for data-driven optimized planning for preventative and predictive maintenance.
It is not uncommon to find a company that outsources various parts for production to other manufacturers to reduce costs. Most of the time, these lower costs come from the company in the supply chain that utilizes better tools and highly-trained personnel to specialize in a process, making the process for that part more efficient. Each time a part is outsourced, a company loses control of that method of production. Furthermore, other variables (delivery, consistency, costs, etc.) are introduced along the way, making it more difficult to control overall product quality. Through proper use of robotic automation, manufacturers have the opportunity to increase efficiency to the point that it makes since to vertically integrate the means of production.
Whether you are learning to “crawl and walk” well with robotic automation (i.e., going from zero robots to five), or whether you are at a full “sprint” (i.e., going from twenty robots to two hundred), now is an exciting time for robotics. Manufacturers are not only realizing advanced solutions are needed to help bolster the workforce, but also, the viable path to profitability that new technologies and robotic automation can provide is attractive as well. While reaching this level of achievement doesn’t come without certain challenges, your trusted robot supplier should be able to guide you along the path toward organizational success – as learning to master certain foundational steps early on can improve performance down the road.
Josh Leath is a Product Manager, Welding – Yaskawa America, Inc., Motoman Robotics Division