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Robotic Material Handling
by Bennett Brumson, Contributing Editor
Robotic Industries Association Posted 11/06/2012
Material handling is the essence of industrial robotics with most robotic applications falling within this category. End-users deploy robots to improve throughput, quality, flexibility and consistency while decreasing ergonomic hazards for workers, scrap and the need for additional conveyance systems in manufacturing and warehouse distribution centers.
Robots are increasingly called on to handle material ranging from blood samples to entire vehicles during the manufacturing process.
“Consumers are more cautious about consistency and quality. Market demands change daily and the ability to adapt to changes in products and packaging is essential,” says Shishir Rege, Packaged Goods Product Marketing Manager at the Motoman Robotics Division of Yaskawa America Inc. (Miamisburg, Ohio). “Manufacturers need adaptability for mass customization so they invest in robotics to become more efficient. Robotics help in quick changeovers from one product to the next, can handle a high mix of products and adjust to throughput demands.”
As consumer tastes vary, robotics help manufacturer and retailers develop products and packaging configurations to tailor their offerings.
“Packaging is changing and manufacturers are trying to 'green' their operations by using less material in primary and secondary packaging. To do that, manufacturers look at how they deliver products to the consumer. Retailers want more market-friendly displays,” says Earl Wohlrab, Robotic Integration Manager of Intelligrated Systems Inc. (St. Louis, Missouri). “This trend has created a more fragile marketing environment for integrators. For years we saw ‘Big Box’ stores, such as Wal-Mart and Costco, forcing suppliers to go from 24 counts to 32 counts to 48 counts of packaged product.”
Wohlrab also talks about a counter-trend, as more consumers look for smaller counts in packaged goods. “We see a resurgence of the European mold, where people shop every day so want two-packs and four-packs. I see the trend towards a comeback of the small variety pack. Some consumers do not want to buy a 24-pack that has four six-packs of individual flavors. That is seen as too risky in this economic environment. Some packages will get smaller.”
The trend towards a greater variation of packaging is also on the mind of John Schwan, Director of Sales and Marketing with QComp Technologies Inc. (Greenville, Wisconsin). “The trend has been growth in the food and packaging areas. I believe that more robots will be used in the food industry, which is the last open market for traditional robots.”
Schwan sees a trend towards the use of multi-arm industrial robots in material handling applications. “I have seen a lot of the newer multi-arm robots being promoted. I think it will be awhile before multi-arm robots are widely accepted in the general work environment.”
Rege’s colleague at Motoman, Product Marketing Manager of Material Handling, Tom Sipple, agrees multi-arm robots are on an upward trend. “At trade shows we demonstrated our dual arm robots. If an application requires heavy-lifting capacity, a huge robot may not fit into a work cell. Dual arm robots are a great way to combine multiple processes within a single work cell because using two robot arms allows the end-user the ability to do things with much simpler tooling.”
Continuing, Sipple says, “Having two arms to support a heavy load at both ends is very powerful. The robot could have different sets of tools at the same time.” Citing an example, Sipple says, “A dual arm robot might have grippers to handle up to three different parts each. The ability to put more manipulators in a very small space is a powerful way to handle a wide range of applications within a single work cell.”
Big and Small
Advancements in vision, software and gripper technology facilitate robotic handling of extreme parts, from very large and heavy to small and delicate.
“Heavy part material handling is generally divided into automotive and general industry robotics. Material handling applications are different for those two markets. Integrators of automotive applications have taken the lead because they are more versed in handling heavier parts,” says Rick Tallian, Robotic Packaging Manager at ABB Inc. (Auburn Hills, Michigan).
Big parts require big robots to maneuver them successfully and repeatability within work cells.
“Robots are faster and can carry heavier payloads now. End-users invest in robots to move larger parts. In the past a robot would require a heavy duty manipulator,” says Mark Riekert, Project Management Manager with Rimrock Corp. (Columbus, Ohio). “As parts get bigger and bigger, grippers must get bigger too. Grippers have become correspondingly bigger”, Riekert says.
Mike Cicco, Distribution Network Manager at FANUC Robotics America Corp. (Rochester Hills, Michigan) concurs, saying, “I see a growing trend towards robots that can pick up very large payloads, up to 3,000 pounds. The challenge in handling very heavy objects used to be coordinating two or more robots. That challenge is solved with a single robot although end-users still have floor space challenges when moving very big objects around a work cell.”
Likewise, Terry Zarnowski, Sales and Marketing Director at Schneider Packaging Equipment Co. Inc. (Brewerton, New York) says, “Industrial robots address very large and heavy objects. Automotive companies use robots to pick up bus or tractor frames for transferring partially assembled vehicles from one assembly line to another. The robot picks up the vehicles, flips them and sets them onto a carrier on an adjacent assembly line or finishing station.”
James Kravec, Senior Sales Engineer with Girard Engineering Inc. (Strongsville, Ohio) speaks of the role of robotics in foundries. “Moving 2,300-degree Fahrenheit parts for eight hours a day is not an easy job. If the operator in the hot metals industry is not paying attention to their work, producing scrap parts is very easy. A robot can work a complete eight hour shift and their productivity is greater due to consistent cycle times. Operators are very inconsistent.”
Schwan cites glass-handling applications as an example of a large, heavy and potentially delicate object manipulated through robotics. “QComp does a lot of large glass handling. Some pieces are six foot by ten foot and weigh over 300 pounds. One of the challenges associated with the large piece of glass is creating a safe area around the work cell. If a large piece of glass were to become detached from the robot, guarding must be robust enough to protect people in the area or those passing by.”
Maneuvering glass panels around a work cell is challenging, Schwan says. “Large pieces of glass can interfere with the robot as it goes through its path of motion. Programing must limit certain joint movements to prevent the glass from hitting the robot arm. The tool needs to support the outer edges of the glass as well as its weight.”
While large capacity robots are often needed to lift and shift heavy parts, smaller, smarter robots can accomplish these tasks using less sophisticated and less expensive off-the-shelf lift assistants, says Rege. “If 10 operations must be performed in a work cell and nine operations need a low payload capacity robot, integrators often use an off-the-shelf lift assistant for the operation needing a higher payload capacity."
The ability to interact with off-the-shelf lift assistant devices makes the use of a smaller robot possible. “Smaller robots reduce the footprint by doing all operations in one work cell.” Using a small and smart robot increases the efficiency of the work cell while simultaneously increasing floor space utilization, Rege concludes.
At the other end of the scale, small and fragile parts such as electronics or food products, require robots fast but delicate enough to meet throughput requirements without causing damage. FANUC’s Mike Cicco suggests delta-style robots might be end-users’ manipulator of choice for these applications.
“For very small or delicate products, manufacturers use one-kilogram payload delta robots. End-users face challenges when handling raw food, but United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-certified grippers can touch food directly.”
Cicco adds “Robots and grippers accepted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are able to handle vaporized hydrogen peroxide cleaning in biotechnology applications after handling blood and plasma samples. I see growth in robotic food and biotechnology material handling applications.”
Fully robotic bin picking is often referred to the “holy grail” of material handling.
“Robot manufacturers continually try to figure out better and easier ways to handle parts in three dimensions. We introduced an area scanner for three-dimensional bin picking. The scanner uses a structured light pattern to build an array of points to guide the robots to do bin picking tasks in less time,” says Cicco. “The scanner enables bin picking without sensor heads on the robot.”
Rimrock’s Mark Riekert has taken note of random bin picking applications hitting the market. “I am starting to see bin picking advertised more. Random bin picking is getting better but is still very complex.”
Material Handling Onstage
Material handling robotics will be a major facet of the Automate 2013 trade show slated for January 21-24 in Chicago’s McCormick Place. Co-located with ProMat, the twin shows are the place to go for end-users’ robotic material handling needs.
“ABB will focus on introducing new software. Our virtual robot programing environment takes place on a personal computer and eliminates the requirement of writing software for robotic material handling applications. The program is a very accurate simulation because it runs the same software in the PC as on the robot,” previews Tallian. “If an end-user has a new product to be palletized, the software brings the new product into the system off-line with little downtime.”
Intelligrated will have displays at both ProMat and Automate. “At ProMat, we will demonstrate our distribution fulfillment, warehousing and order fulfillment capabilities. In Automate, Intelligrated will have a closed loop system of robotic case de-palletizing, case unpacking, a station doing palletizing and case insertion as well as automatic palletizing,” says Wohlrab.
Motoman will show a range of robotic applications, including traditional manufacturing robots with vision and robots that move beyond the factory floor. A fun and interactive robot demonstration is also planned for Automate.
Terry Zarnowski says, “Schneider Packaging Equipment will have a vision-guided robot demonstration using a delta robot to pick and load trays of products into bags. The end-of-arm-tool will pick and place three different products using vision to locate the products and find their orientation. The robot takes randomly oriented products, loads trays, unloads them and recycles the process.”
The Robotic Industries Association (RIA, Ann Arbor, Michigan) offers end-users opportunities to learn more about how flexible automation could benefit their material handling processes through two webinars, New Techniques in Robotic Material Handling (view archive) and Robots in the Warehouse (November 15, 2012, or view archive thereafter).
Handling the Future
Material handling is one of many bright spots for the robotics industry. Wohlrab describes the growth in material handling applications as a, “Steep upward line, not a curve. Based on faster speeds, tooling and software improvements, material handling robotics have improved rapidly in the last five years.” Wohlrab expects that steep upward line to continue.
Motoman’s Tom Sipple says, “As the automotive industry changed, many skilled people who understand robotics were dispersed into several different industries. These skilled people recognize the benefits of robotics and have fueled an interest in other industries. We see material handling robotics as a growing area.”
Shishir Rege’s analysis is similar to Sipple’s. “Plant managers now recognize the hidden value of robotics over hard automation. I see a continued increase in the demand for material handling robotics.”