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25. October 2018 / By Manan Banerjee / 4 Comments
Collaborative robot deployments often have high visibility throughout all levels of an organization, whether it’s manufacturing, packaging, or research. What is also highly visible is the process for conquering the learning curve and the ease with which the robot is back online if (when) hiccups happen. It is pretty obvious that easy programming and maintenance are beneficial to an organization, but let’s talk a bit further about exactly why they’re important.
Perhaps the most straightforward aspect - implementation times can quickly add to the upfront cost of a new robotic implementation. Even if one robot is repurposed as needed, each new application takes some amount of time investment on top of the any needed hardware. Minimizing this time not only increases the flexibility of a platform but the ROI as well.
With no robotics experience, family-owned Zippertubing Company in Phoenix, Arizona, integrated Universal Robots in vision-guided applications tending snap fastening machines
Depending on the scale of the operation and associated goals in implementing the robots, it is not always feasible for a single person to evaluate opportunities and program them all. Lowering the technical threshold needed to deploy and monitor them makes it much more likely that the same employee(s) doing the automated tasks can be repurposed into robot deployers. An easily programmable system can, therefore, act as a labor multiplier.
It is becoming increasingly common for a manufacturer to have difficulty finding employees to do dull, dirty, or dangerous work. The historically low unemployment rate is undoubtedly a good thing for the economy at large, but manufacturers looking to fill operator positions are finding it tough to make laborious jobs appealing with the widespread availability of work. An automation platform with a gentle learning curve makes it possible to re-scope a traditional line position with greatly reduced additional investment. Strategically repurposing unskilled workers not only enhances the organization, but also the workers’ skill sets, often justifying reasonable pay increases to match the added value of the position and increasing employee fulfillment. This is a win-win - the employee gains added skills, expertise, and job satisfaction, and the organization is able to be competitive as an employer and reduce turnover.
At All Axis Machining in Dallas, Texas, the company had employees go through the UR Academy, consisting of free, interactive online modules that teach basic programming and set-up. “We had an elderly operator doing the sanding, which requires a lot of muscle,” explains owner of All Axis Machining, Gary Kuzmin, who one day saw the operator on his own pick up the cobot’s teach pendant to start programming it to sand a part. “I’ve never been more proud to see one of our employees learn a brand-new technology. This is really empowering and is going to improve his whole lifestyle and earning capability as well.”
Given enough time, any sophisticated system will need troubleshooting, debugging, or fixing at some point. The loss of production caused by this downtime, can detract from ROI and throughput, and often cause intangible drawbacks such as frustrated technicians. It is important not only that the platform itself be easily and quickly serviceable but also have a robust support system in place to help the end user in times of need.
Because time and resources are finite, there is an opportunity cost for the particular project, whether during deployment or servicing. Making programming and support accessible minimizes this opportunity cost and further improves the ROI of a particular project.
The cost of training courses (both for programming and maintenance) can easily add up to several days and thousands of dollars per trainee. An intuitively programmable and easily serviceable platform mitigates (or may even eliminate) this ramp-up time, and greatly reduces the total cost of ownership of the system.
Aircraft Tooling, a Texas-based repair center for the aviation industry, was surprised to find that the UR robots could withstand the high temperatures and harsh environment while performing metal powder and plasma spray processes. The cobots have now been in operation for three years without breakdown or service requirements
One way to tackle the learning curve is to invest in a system designed to be easily programmed. On some systems, this is done by integrating the teaching interface onto the robot arm, where a programmer can set waypoints by pressing buttons on the panel.
On the Universal Robots platform, ease of programming is a driving idea behind the PolyScope interface. While minimal programming experience always helps in a production application, the time for training on a UR is reduced to 1.5 days on average, with avenues for much more complex applications for those comfortable. The UR+ ecosystem provides a certified list of accessories (grippers, vision, software, etc.) that are guaranteed to integrate easily with the robot. Ease of maintenance is also a primary objective, with a maintenance-free operation and joint modules that can be quickly and easily swapped to reduce downtime.
An alternative to obtaining an easy-to-use platform is to develop an internal robotics team and build their expertise in deploying other major industrial robotic brands, effectively creating an in-house integration team. While this does require certain personnel to be siloed and investments in training/resources for the first application, every subsequent project takes less time as the team conquers the learning curve. This internal innovation and expertise can provide a competitive advantage by granting the ability to quickly expand capacity and capability in industries where new products are regularly brought to market.
If developing a team internally is not possible, it could also be feasible to bring in a third party to provide support and integration. By outsourcing the expertise, there is no need to reallocate resources or shift focus away from immediate production needs, with the tradeoff that the required Non-Recoverable Engineering work now carries a markup.
Acquiring a Collaborative Robot is an exciting proposition, and it is natural that the ease of programming and support is desirable. Beyond the obvious benefit of faster deployments and reduced downtime, there are several other benefits to an easy-to-use system for manufacturers and their employees, including better ROI and reduced opportunity costs and downtime.
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Manan is a North Carolina native - born and raised in Cary, eventually moving to Charlotte in 2005 to attend college. He graduated from UNCC with dual degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Physics, later completing his MBA with Wake Forest University. While working for several years as a design engineer, Manan realized his affinity for robots and making processes more efficient. He joined Cross Company in 2017 as a Robotics Technical Specialist, where he uses robots to help people work more efficiently.