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Emerging Trends in Robotic Integration

by Bennett Brumson , Contributing Editor
Robotic Industries Association

Integration is the vital link between an industrial robot and its ability to perform manufacturing tasks. What trends are driving the robotic integration market?

'Application-specific software, pre-developed for an integrator, helps to put a robot to work easier,' says Ron Potter, director of robotic technologies at Factory Automation Systems of Atlanta, GA. This has encouraged integrators to make their systems more specialized rather than for a broad range of robotic applications.

Emerging Trends
A number of robotic integrators, such as Automated Production Systems (A.P.S.), Inc., is following this trend. A.P.S., of New Freedom, PA, focuses on specific robotic applications, such as welding, medical, palletizing, foods, pharmaceuticals, and soft drink packing applications.

'We have systems that have one robot servicing up to four production lines, and palletizing four different products simultaneously. Two robotic cells are capable of handling eight production lines that palletize 240 cases of food product per minute,' claims William Donahue, president of A.P.S. This system uses robots from Fanuc's 410 series of four-axis, electric servo-driven robots with an integrated control component designed for a multitude of manufacturing, palletizing, order picking, and machine tending tasks.

Other emerging markets in robotics are the integration of high precision positioning system. 'Robots are not the most accurate of machines. A highly accurate positioning system makes it so,' asserts Ken Verble, vice president of sales and marketing at RTS Wright.

Verble maintains that photonics/fiber optics, welding, wire bonding, fusing, and communications, will get a big impetus from robotic manufacturing in the not-so-distant future. 'Solutions will be in the semi-conductor format, especially in fiber optics. Only a highly precise robot could profitably manufacture these fibers,' Verble added.

There are eight, 16, or 32 channels of communication running simultaneously through a glass fiber that is 0.075 mm to 0.01 mm in diameter. The Nashville, TN-based RTS Wright is an integrator of Kawasaki, Denso, Seiko, ABB, Motoman, and Adept robots. Verble predicts that DNA mapping and crystallography for potential new pharmaceuticals will benefit from advances in integration software in the next five to ten years. 'Because they can run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we can do jobs in weeks that would take years until recently. We provide the motion and vision systems to map DNA,' contends Verble.

Cost control is a major driver in the push to implement integrated robotic solutions in manufacturing. 'There will be a convergence of web-based technology and open architecture with robotics. This will enable a site linked to a service that ensures the system is supported more thoroughly at a lower cost,' says Terry O'Connell of Genesis Systems Group.

O'Connell, vice president of the Davenport, IA-based Genesis went on to explain how this could be used for management reporting. 'A plant manager could analyze down-time making production more efficient. This information could be used to set up a production schedule of how many parts are needed to be made that day, or how many pallets need to be filled.'

That data could be transmitted directly to the point of manufacture, packing, and distribution, making the process more seamless. Increased integration power helps traditionally heavy users of robotics. 'For more experienced users of robotics, like the automotive industry, there always is a push to lower costs. Manufacturers will buy robots 'a la carte' and have integrators put these systems together, ' adds O'Connell.

Genesis is a maker of robotic arc welding cells. One system that Genesis manufactures is the Versa 2G. This workcell is for welding and metal cutting operations that have frequent changeovers and low or moderate part volumes.  Elements included are the robot base integrated with the positioner, a high speed, and heavy-duty parts positioning system, photocells, interlocking gates and fence barriers for safety.

Genesis also provides extensive training for system operators. Other features include a mechanism for tool center point verification and torch cleaning. The Versa 2G also has fork slots on each side that enables the cell to be relocated to other areas, facilitating adaptable manufacturing requirements.

New Markets
As robotic integration technology gets more dependable and less expensive, smaller manufacturing enterprises are just beginning to adapt them for low volume production. 'The market is not saturated for spot welding yet. Smaller companies with ten to 15 people are beginning to use robots. Applications include food packaging, pharmaceuticals and small-scale research,' says Factory Automation's Ron Potter.

'New industries are adopting robotic technology due to their increased reliability.' With 50,000 to 60,000 hours between failures, firms who traditionally shunned robotics are finding them to be an attractive investment. Again, Ron Potter: 'The learning curve of first-time users implementing robots gets less and less. The trend will be more PC-based software solutions, and increased use of software for a specific application. The personal computer makes this easier'

This view is echoed by Terry O'Connell who said 'Integrated robotics have gone from Detroit to small Mom-and-Pop shops. This is particularly true of the metal fabrication industries, like welding.' O'Connell went on to say 'New users have a lot of risk associated with robotics because they are inexperienced, so they turn to an integrator to implement these new systems. They are smart to buy full service integration from someone who knows what they are doing.'

With the tight labor markets of the past few years, robots have been seen as an effective solution to a worker shortage. 'A small welding shop might have only one or two robots, but it is an important part of their operation. What they can do with one or two robots and their operators used to be done with six people. Hiring these people would be a little more expensive, but companies might not even find them,' notes O'Connell 'I see more integration in the cleaning process and cast handling in the foundry industry.'
 
'These are labor-intensive processes and there are a lot of ergonomic issues, particularly in the need to reduce injuries and time off associated with them,' added David LaRussa, sales manager of the Action Machinery Division at Vulcan Engineering of Helena, AL.

Action Machinery is an integrator of ABB robots used in the foundry and forging industries. LaRussa's machines of choice from ABB are from the IRB 7600 series of robots. ABB's IRB 7600 is a six-axis robot designed for heavy material handling, press/machine tending, and spot welding functions.

The 7600 are able to operate in temperatures from five degrees Celsius to 50 degrees and in relative humidity of up to 95 percent. The 7600 series are EMC/EMI emission shielded, have a load identification system, movable mechanical stops and double safety limit switches. Other safety features include a collision detection system, as well as an electronically stabilized path to ensure the robot maintains its planned path.

This latter system takes variables into account such as acceleration, drag, gravity and inertia. Vulcan's David LaRussa expressed a preference for large robots not just for their increased weight capacities, but also for their extended reach.

The use of robotics to replace scarce labor was also on the mind of Ken Verble. He said, 'You can't get people to do certain jobs and not every facet of production can be shipped off to Asia or Latin America. Companies that had fought the use of robotics are now turning to them because labor is unwilling to do it.'

This concern was repeated by Terry O'Connell, 'The scarce availability of qualified workers and pressure to increase productivity in the face of more regional, national, and international competition, is leading to new opportunities for robotic integrators.'

Likewise, the machine tool loading and unloading has become a larger market for integrators. 'This is so because a lot of Tier one and Tier two suppliers to the automotive industry can't find labor to pick up and load a brake drum weighing 200 pounds and load them into machines. With this type of application, productivity increased 50 to 200 percent,' expressed Factory Automation's Ron Potter.

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