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Consumer Products Produced by Robotics

by Bennett Brumson , Contributing Editor
Robotic Industries Association

It is common knowledge that industrial robots help manufacture big ticket items like automobiles, aerospace components, tractors and bulldozers. But what not be as well known is that robots also assist in producing everyday products such as foods, pharmaceuticals, and cell phones.

'Like a human, we can teach a robot to undertake new tasks,' notes Denis Danchine, an engineer at Fanuc Robotics. 'A robot is made standard and we customize it for new applications by installing different tooling,' says Danchine, an expert in material removal and de-flashing. As manufacturing robots get smaller and more flexible, the scope of items produced by them will surely expand.

Dispensing Medications The Robotic Way
One example is a robotic pharmaceutical dispensing application designed by Motoman, Inc., in conjunction with McKesson HBOC of Pineville, LA. The Autoscript III APS is a robotic pharmaceutical dispensing system, with an off-the-shelf Motoman robot at its heart. Pharmacies choose from either a three- or a six-kilogram capacity robot for installation, depending on the quantities of medications normally dispensed. Using a touch-screen, a pharmacist inputs the medication that is required along with the amount needed. The robot visits a number of different trays located within the cell and picks the proper quantity of medication to fill the prescription. A pharmacist can enter the data and attend to other tasks while the robot fills the order. Carl Traynor, director of marketing at Motoman, notes that this kind of application helps boost the public's understanding of robotics as well as the pharmacist's ability to fill prescriptions. 'It allows people to see a robot in a drugstore, and this shows how a robot can be used in an environment where we have not seen robots in the past,' he explains. The Autoscript system can fill up to 240 prescriptions per hour (four per minute) and is contained within a 10-by-10-foot area. Each time a prescription is filled, the medication selection, counting and labeling are checked by a bar code. Prescriptions can be verified by the pharmacist visually with on-screen imaging. Because this type of robotic application is used by people who are not familiar with robotics, it must be user-friendly, which makes programming the key, says Traynor. 'We needed to provide a solution to the APS that can be used by someone who does not know how to program a robot.' Traynor says the demand for being user-friendly 'does not get any higher than this. A pharmacist is not going to program the APS system. The system had to be something that was very self-contained and automated.' Training, while important, is relatively easy, adds Traynor. 'Within two hours, pharmacists learn how to operate this system much as learning how to operate a PC.'

Robo Foods
Another consumer-related manufacturing area in which robotics are increasingly being used is the food industry. Robots are typically used either in packaging units or in palletizing applications. Fanuc Robotics has developed a robot that moves pallets of frozen food in sub-zero freezers. This system is capable of de-palletizing cases of frozen products from pallets, and stacks them into food retail distribution racks. Built around Fanuc's M-410i series of four axis robots, this line of machines includes three models with load capacities ranging from 100 to 400 kilograms. Each has an optional cold room feature designed to protect the robot in temperatures as low as -20 degrees Fahrenheit. To operate the robot at these temperatures, a kevlar 'snow suit' shields the unit and keeps the robot within an optimal temperature range. When a sensor detects that the temperature inside the suit approaches the robot's minimum operating temperature, a heating system injects warmed air into the suit. Some versions of the system use vacuum grippers. Others use electric actuators for the grippers, which minimize problems of frozen and blocked compressed air lines.

Flexicell, a robotic integrator based in Richmond, VA., has implemented various systems for the food industry. Hans Schouten, Flexicell's vice-president for sales, says that its systems are capable of packaging foods at relatively high speeds. He offers yogurt production as an example. 'Our robots can handle 20 cups at a time, per cycle. One can easily run 20 to 30 cycles, so production speeds can be about 700 cups per minute.' Rates of production for muffins are 150 to 200 per minute using multiple robots, while up to 250 cookies per minute can be produced with a similar system. Machine vision is used in these systems to perform quality control functions, Schouten said. 'Machine vision can detect products that are broken or damaged and can reject them, at high speeds, which increases efficiencies. If a machine can see 1,000 pixels, it can be programmed to reject a particular item if it sees less than 950. Differences in sizes that can hardly be seen with the human eye can be differentiated.'

Robotic food applications have traditionally been performed strictly at production facilities, but that is beginning to change, says Motoman's Traynor. 'Now we are looking at applications where our customers are asking us to do something within a restaurant--that is, use robotics in an environment much closer to the point of delivery of the food. There have been crude attempts in the past, but in the near future, there will be solutions.'

Is That Your Cell Phone Ringing?
The proliferation of cellular phones has brought more opportunities for robotic manufacturing. One player making robots for cell phone manufacture and packaging is the Geneva, Switzerland-based Staubli Corporation. Staubli and its U.S. branch have produced robots for unloading cell phones from injection molding machines, painting them, and applying a metallic coating to the interior of the phone's casing, which acts as a radiation barrier.

However, robotics are also finding roles in testing cell phones and other electronics. 'Robots are used extensively in the testing of the cell phones,' says Jim Cook, Staubli's training manager. Together with Motorola, Staubli developed a robotic cell to measure the radiation produced by a cell phone and to map out where that radiation adheres, he says. Staubli's cell phone testing robots are used by Motorola, Nokkia, Underwriters Laboratory, and Global Satellite of Canada.

Likewise, Adept Technology of San Jose, CA, makes robotic products that are capable of packaging and of testing cell phones. Generally, Adept does not undertake integration tasks for cell phone applications, but sells robot controllers to cell phone manufacturers, such as Telecom, Kidde, J.O.T., and T.M.J., of Finland, among others. Adept's robots test cell phones by pressing the buttons and performing other mechanical tests. The robots also pick and place circuit boards, and snap-fit the phone bodies to these circuit boards. In the manufacturing process, the robots perform de-burring and polishing functions. Adept sells standardized products to system integrators, who often use ABB robots with Adept's controllers.

Jewelry Applications
The grinding and polishing of jewelry is a relatively new application for industrial robotics. Robotic System Integrations Inc. (R.S.I.) of Rapid City, SD has formulated a system, using a Fanuc robot, that carries out grinding and polishing tasks that until recently were performed manually. Using a Fanuc LR Mate 200i robot, the system uses machine vision to grind and polish jewelry, then carries out a quality inspection to determine how well the piece was polished. According to Fanuc's Danchine, 'Everything is done on-line and in real-time. The production rate for five operations in one application, including sprue removal, inside and outside grind, and inside and outside polishing is one minute, 15 seconds per ring.' The LR Mate 200i is a six-axis, table top robot, with a 3-kilogram load capacity and 700 mm of
reach. This system contains a multiple gripper configuration and a universal conveyor fixture that handles 5,000 varieties of jewelry styles. The gripper includes a position sensor that is used to automatically detect ring sizes. R.S.I. configured the system to be a stand-alone unit that can communicate with the manufacturer's electronic systems in order to exchange production data included in work orders.  The cell may also be expanded on a modular principle if a company needs to accommodate large capacity requirements.

As robotics and their controllers get more sophisticated, it is inevitable that new applications will develop. That widely held notion was best illustrated up by Staubli's Jim Cook. 'Manufacturers are realizing the flexibility of robotics, and we are finding new applications for robots every day,' he says. 'Often, it's things that we wouldn't have thought of until a customer comes to us asking, 'Can you make a robot that could do this or that?' We look at the application, and the answer we give them is, 'Yes, we can.''

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