When you’re staring down a dirty, tedious (or even dangerous) job, you know how good it feels to get it completed. The first time you do it – even the first few times – there’s a sense of accomplishment. Over time, these jobs can not only wear down workers but also keep them from higher value tasks in a plant.
This may come as a surprise given what we do for a living, but installing an industrial robot to take over grimy or monotonous work may not always be the answer. That’s because not all robots are equal.
First, industrial robots can be a complex solution, especially for small and medium-sized businesses. Second, not every plant manager has the staff (or budget to hire an integrator) to program (and reprogram) a robot. Third, industrial robots require the robot’s working area to be safeguarded to prevent potential injury to humans.
Depending on your application, you can overcome the above challenges by “hiring” a special type of industrial robot – a collaborative robot, or cobot. A cobot is relatively lightweight and designed to operate safely in close proximity to people. This can eliminate curtains or fencing through the use of sensors or force-limiting technology with the proper application and risk assessment. It’s also easily programmed through hand guiding, which allows a worker to move the cobot’s arm to each point in a job instead of typing commands into a pendant.
People with only a casual knowledge of cobots often refer to them as “fenceless robots” - implying that they are safe. However, if you’re manufacturing knives with a fenceless robot, is a worker nearby any safer because the robot is moving slowly? It’s all about evaluating the complete system.
Before investing in a cobot, conduct a risk assessment. There are certified experts in robotics to handle these risk assessments to ensure that the robot, application and humans interact safely. Getting this chemistry right ensures a safe place to work and an uptick in productivity.
Here’s an example we saw during a plant visit: A cobot grabbed a part for a lifting mechanism out of a forming machine; inspected it via a 2D camera and then inserted the part into another nearby machine for polishing. The human worker previously manning this station risked injury from back strain and, toward the end of his shift, wasn’t examining the piece as closely as at the beginning of the day. The cobot eliminated the risk of injury to the worker performing this task and now ensures consistent quality control.
Collaborative robots can work alongside humans and are easily configured. If a cobot comes in contact with a worker, it immediately stops to minimize or eliminate injury. If you decide to reconfigure your production line to handle a new product, a properly trained operator can reprogram a cobot in an hour or two. Compare that to the one or two days of production time lost reprogramming an industrial robot to handle a line changeover. For most plant managers, this last point alone makes a cobot worth the cost.
In fact, collaborative robots are a way to future-proof your manufacturing process. If management wants to change the style or type of product its plants are running, a collaborative robot is versatile enough to handle whatever changeovers you want with minimal effort and time. Collaborative robots can provide benefits in terms of safety, cost, quality and ROI; thus, making them a feasible solution for the technical and economic challenges faced by supply chain organizations, no matter the industry or size.
To get a look at what’s next with cobots, here’s a preview of our collaborative robot that small and medium-sized businesses will want to own, so they can wash their hands of the dirty work.
Keith Vozel is a Software Product Manager