We've talked about how robots affect job security – one of the common concerns workers and managers express about automation and robotics in manufacturing. Here we’ll address three more reasons robots get a bad rap: safety, expense, and learning to work with advanced technology.
For many, the default mental image of an industrial robot is a gigantic arm enclosed in fencing, or even its own room, towering over other equipment as it zips around. And indeed, these are still in use in many factories and they are still quite dangerous. There are many options to make these powerful robots safe like interlocking switches, redundant key/lockout access, light curtains, area scanners, and more.
Recently, smaller robots that are safe for humans to work around have come onto the scene. Many are even used in high-mix and low-volume settings in small- and medium-sized facilities. Features include:
- Small footprint
- Moderate payload and reach
- Multi-axis articulation
- On-board sensors and camera vision
- Range of end of arm tooling (EOAT) options
Sometimes called collaborative robots, or cobots, many of these can be moved around the production floor to different workstations and reprogrammed on the fly, or mounted directly on a workbench. They can be programmed to move slowly, and are equipped with sensors to stop motion or reduce force.
Safety with any kind of robot requires a thorough risk assessment. This includes listing each individual risk and noting several things about it: severity of potential injury, overall possibility or likelihood of injury occurrence, possibility or likelihood of avoiding the injury (e.g. is there space to move aside if need be?), and frequency of exposure to the particular risk. Be sure to consider risks posed by secondary equipment like conveyors, material handling equipment, additional robotic arms, and suspended or raised equipment.
Perhaps the most important safety consideration involves some types of tooling – risks persist even when the robot is powered off or stationary. For example, if the arm holds a sharp blade or hot welding torch.
One of the biggest hurdles to integrating robots or automation into manufacturing facilities is the perceived expense, especially for a custom system or specialized task. While it really isn’t possible to argue that robotics are inexpensive, it is useful to understand the factors that affect price:
- Number of arms
- Size and payload required
- Degree of integration with other equipment or tasks
- Level of customization/programming needed
- Static design or options to accommodate future expansion
- Tool or fixturing changeover needed
- Part scanning system for automatic changeover and/or traceability
Depending on what capabilities are needed, and what aren’t, the price may be more or less than anticipated. It’s always worth it to ask for an estimate instead of working with assumptions.
When forecasting return on investment, or ROI, look at the big picture. For example:
- Boost production levels
- Expand manufacturing capability
- Fill workforce gaps
- Improve ergonomics and safety
- Quickly pivot production to address market changes
- Work during off hours or with limited staff
- Improvements in quality and accuracy of output
- Reduce scrap
- Reassign highly skilled workers to complex or challenging tasks
Taking this comprehensive view of ROI shows just how far-reaching the impact of robotics and automation can be within an organization.
3. Discomfort with Advanced Technology
Some operators and technicians think of robots as complicated to work with, easily damaged, or far beyond their skillset. And it’s true that the initial programming, controls engineering, system planning, and integration require expertise and skill. But that doesn’t mean daily operations are difficult or are only for the experts.
Many systems include intuitive controls and human-machine interfaces (HMIs) that are easy to use. Instead of relying on others to program an arm for a new task or to make adjustments, operators are able to “teach” it by moving it through the required motions and storing them in memory. Operators and technicians can also change tooling and other hardware to switch between tasks or workstations without inputting lines of code or designing new machine logic – this can be pre-programmed and easily activated with a turnkey system.
Finally, most equipment controls can be secured with password-protected levels of access to prevent accidental changes to critical programming, something users may find reassuring with new technology. All of these features make robotics user friendly and foster a sense of empowerment for workers.
Manufacturers can also use hands-on training to encourage mindset changes that build confidence and lessen hesitation or inaccurate perceptions of what the machine can and can’t do. These include learning how to troubleshoot the equipment, to maintain a steady stream of raw materials and components to input, and to optimize their movements to collaborate efficiently with the machine.
Do you think robots and automation have a bad reputation in manufacturing? We’d love to hear what you want to learn more about – please contact us.