Robotics adoption matters: identifying opportunities for implementing cobots


Collaborative robots represent an increasing share of all industrial robots sold. In this part of @AuManufacturing’s Robotics adoption matters series, Vikram Sachdeva suggests some places to look to see if they could improve your factory’s operations.

Traditional robotics and related automation have been key drivers of the Third Industrial revolution of the 1970s. Traditional Industrial robots typically took away dull, dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs from humans. Because these robots carry a heavy payload, they are bulky; because they cannot sense the environment around them, they are inherently dangerous and hence they must be put in safety cages. These robots also have mostly been considered adversaries by humans and blamed for taking their jobs away.

By contrast, collaborative robots or Cobots, as the name suggests, are symbiotic partners with humans. They work in close proximity to humans to complement and augment what humans do. Cobots move with limited force and speed and stop when they sense any obstruction that might be a person; hence they do not injure any humans. By carrying out the tasks alongside humans, they are able to shift humans to doing higher value-added tasks while they do the repetitive tasks. The use of cobots results in improved ergonomics and productivity. In a symbiotic cell, human and cobots seem to be doing a well-choreographed dance. Cobots are limited by the much smaller payload as compared to traditional robots, but unlike traditional robots, cobots do not require special skills to program them.

Opportunities to look out for in your factory :

    1. Pick and Place Repetitive Work: If there are processes within your factory which require pick and place of light boxes fairly repetitively, Cobots can definitely help. If due to workstation design constraints, pick and place requires a lot of bending and twisting by an operator, it will be easier to justify a cobot to assist the operator. Ergonomic problems (repetitive motions, excessive load, awkward posture) can result in a variety of musculoskeletal injuries.
    2. Imbalance in Process Time leading to lower output: Most Australian manufacturing is high variety low volume manufacturing, necessitating frequent changeovers. Not all production flow can be perfectly balanced to achieve an optimum output. Let us take an example of an assembly line with say 5 processes, A to E. Suppose for Product X, cycle time of process A,B,C & E is 4 min but process D takes 5 min; as a result product X comes out of the line every 5 min. This is assuming that process D cannot be split and redistributed to process A,B,C & E. Imagine using a cobot at process D to work along with the human operator, share some work  and reduce process time to 4 min. This will ensure product X comes out of the line every 4 min now. Product Y may have a different challenge. Since the cobot is easy to program, it can  assist a different operator for product Y.
    3. Simple applications of Screw Driving: Human undertaking complex assembly can leave the screw driving work to fellow cobot, thus sharing the workload and avoiding potential repetitive strain injury to the human. 
    4. Tending to Machines: The repetitive task of loading a part into a machine and unloading the finished part from the machine can be handled by a cobot while the operator can do value added tasks like inspection. A cobot can tend to more than 1 machine at a time.
    5.  Assisting Return to Work Operators: Post an injury recovery, operators on a “Return to Work” plan typically start work with advice to avoid doing a few tasks to prevent any deterioration of their condition. Because of these constraints, it is difficult to introduce them back in their pre-injury work area, although this is a preferred advice from OH&S professionals. Hence these operators are generally put to do some basic jobs in a different work area. Cobots can come to the rescue by working together and helping the injured worker with the tasks they are unable to perform, ensuring they recover much faster.
    6. Finishing Operations: like deburring and polishing can easily be handled by cobots with appropriate end-effector to hold either the finishing tool or the part itself. 
    7. Quality Inspection: Let us take an example of a product being put together on an assembly line and at end of the line, which has to be checked visually (for presence of all components, labels etc.) and functionally (by connecting to a testing machine). In this case, a cobot using vision system can handle the visual inspection while the operator does the functional testing, reducing the cycle time of the process and potential errors from repetitive visual inspection.
    8. Alternative to Small Assembly Special Purpose Machines: If you have operations like adhesive applications on a defined path, cobots holding a dispensing tool can be a better alternative to a small special purpose machine because they will provide the flexibility to be reconfigured for other jobs as well. 
    9. Social Distancing Requirements: For some closely packed workplaces, cobots can assist with filling in for some humans; thus social distancing requirements can be met without changing the workplace design and output.
    10. Ageing Workforce / Diversity of Employment: Cobots assisting humans with difficult tasks can reduce the physical needs in processes and make your factory more inclusive for ageing workforce and diverse employment. 

Picture: Fanuc

Vikram Sachdeva is managing Advanced Manufacturing Industry 4.0 Hub at Swinburne’s Factory of the Future. Funded by the Victorian government, the Hub works closely with  small and medium Victorian manufacturers to embed Industry 4.0 in their factories to achieve the next level of operational excellence and operationalise new digital business models.

@AuManufacturing’s Robotics adoption matters series is brought to you with the support of the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Hub.

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