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Editorials

Robotics for Senior Management

Robotic Industries Association

Introduction

These guidelines for senior management have been prepared by the Robotic Industries Association to provide a better understanding of industrial robot technology and to describe the impact of industrial robots on a company's operations and strategies.

The recommendations are based on the experience of robot implementers and users who have integrated industrial robots into their manufacturing strategy and their factory operations.

The Opportunity

Leaders in most industries consider industrial robots as key elements in their manufacturing and business strategies.  Robots are no longer considered only as replacements for workers in the factory.  Senior management recognizes that potential benefits impact all aspects of manufacturing -- productivity, flexibility, quality, time to market -- and that robots can give them the competitive edge necessary for survival.

The Robotics Industry

Now in its fifth decade, industrial robot technology is still underutilized and misunderstood.

What is an industrial robot?
The Robotic Industries Association defines the industrial robot as:  "A reprogrammable, multi-functional machine designed to manipulate material, parts, tools or specialized devices through variable programmed motions for the performance of a variety of tasks."

What can robots do?
Robots are capable of performing a wide variety of tasks, such as:  material handling, spot welding, arc welding, assembly, dispensing, material removal, coating and inspection.

Who uses robots?
Robots are used in many industries including: automotive, semiconductor, electronics, aerospace, food and beverage, pharmaceutical, consumer goods, plastics, construction and medical devices.  They are used in industrialized countries worldwide, especially in the United States, Japan, Germany, England, France, Singapore, Korea, Canada, Taiwan and Mexico.

What is the Robotic Industries Association?
RIA is a trade association whose mission is to improve the competitiveness of the North American manufacturing and service sectors  through promotion and enhancement of robotics and related automation.  RIA members include leading North American robot suppliers, integrators, users and technology developers.  Activities include sponsoring trade shows, workshops and conferences; playing an active role in establishing industry standards; publishing and distributing robotics information; reporting statistics; and representing the robotics industry to government, industry, academia and the media.

The Need for Commitment

Senior management must be the champion of robotics.  Implementing industrial robots requires total company commitment, championed by senior management.  It is their responsibility to:

Establish and state the overall objectives of robot implementation, as both a manufacturing strategy and an overall business strategy.

Develop policies and issue statements on:

  • economic and other justification for robot implementation
  • long-term commitment to the robot implementation program
  • handling of displaced workers

Be highly visible as champions, to:

  • overcome middle management inertia
  • support the efforts of the robotics implementation teams
  • provide resources as well as moral support

The Learning Process

Management must establish the climate essential to the learning process.  The implementation of robotics requires an open, supportive environment.  Senior management can enhance the chances for success by:

  • Assigning people to the robotics team who are interested in new techniques and welcome change.
  • Beginning with simple applications.
  • Defining the parameters of the project, and avoiding the temptation to expand.
  • Being supportive and avoiding the punitive pressures which inhibit the learning process.
  • Being patient.
  • Planning for replication so that the business can profit from the learning curve.

The Implementation Process

Success in implementing robots requires a systematic approach.  The successful implementation of industrial robots is best accomplished through a systematic, multi-step process, which a robotic systems integrator can help you with.  The sequence of steps for robot implementation is as follows:

  • Initial Survey -- review all factory operations, and develop a shopping list of potential applications.
  • Qualification -- reduce the shopping list to practicality, considering technical feasibility and justification potential.
  • Prioritization and Selection -- determine which application to start with and what order to follow with the others.
  • Justification -- develop economic and other rationale to support the decision to implement.
  • Application Engineering -- do all of the engineering up to and including the final specification and selection of the particular robot to be used, the basic configuration of the workplace and a detailed description of the robot's task.
  • System Engineering -- develop the total manufacturing system into which the robot will be integrated and all of the related changes to equipment, process and product.
  • Final Implementation -- prepare the site and people, install and program the robot system, start up and monitor afterward

Justification

Justification for industrial robots must consider both economic and non-economic issues.  The implementation of robots requires significant resources -- money, time, people and management attention.  The returns must be measured in terms of overall benefits to the company, not simply by payback period or return on investment.  Following are elements of the costs and benefits of robots:

Initial Costs:

  • the system and related components (robots, end effectors, tooling, etc.) 
  • facilities, equipment revisions and rearrangements
  • application engineering
  • process and product changes
  • training and transfers
  • installation
  • launching

Continuing Costs:

  • cost of capital
  • taxes and insurance
  • maintenance labor, supplies and spare parts
  • energy
  • training

Benefits:

  • improved quality and reliability
  • increased productivity
  • stronger competitive position
  • increased flexibility
  • decreased time to market
  • safety and potential cost of disability
  • savings on scrap and rework
  • reduced direct labor costs and related expenses
  • lower indirect costs
  • depreciation
  • advancement of technology

Human Factors

Senior management must be aware of and sensitive to employee concerns about robots.  The impact of robots will be felt plant-wide.  Senior management must be aware that employee concerns are related to their functions and are not all alike:

  • Production management -- interested in the robot's contribution to solving productivity, quality and work force problems, but not necessarily its contribution to profits.
  • Production supervision -- concerned with keeping the lines running and interested in backup plans and maintenance support.  Must have answers to workers' questions about displacement, safety and the future.
  • Skilled trade workers -- may need upgrading of basic skills.  Need specialized training and proper tools to keep the robot systems operating.
  • Direct and indirect labor -- fear possible loss of employment.  Need clear policy statement regarding displacement and opportunities for retraining and reassignment.
  • Administrative and staff -- need definition of their responsibilities and recognition of their importance to successful implementation.

Conclusion

Industrial robots can be significant factors in the improvement of productivity, quality, profitability and, indeed, survival and should be an integral part of every manufacturing and business strategy.  Successful implementation of industrial robots is not easy.  To encourage success, it is up to senior management to provide the vision to see how vital robotics technology is to manufacturing today and in the future, the climate and resources necessary for implementation and the motivation to make it happen.

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