How Robotics Can Achieve Smarter Manufacturing

08/13/2019 | Matt Oswald

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Robots are everywhere! No, this isn’t an ad campaign for a new sci-fi movie. It’s just true. 

According to a 2018 PwC report, more than half (59%) of all U.S. manufacturers use some form of robotics technology. Many are embracing automated robots to stay competitive and because of the numerous ways processes are enhanced when there are robots in manufacturing. 

While many people may think of robots working on large, high-volume assembly lines such as an automobile manufacturer, automated robots can also be cost-effective in small- to medium-sized businesses, depending on the operation.

Advantages to Robotics in Manufacturing

The most obvious thing robots bring to the manufacturing process is efficiency. From raw material handling to finished product quality testing, robots can repeatedly perform the same tasks nearly flawlessly, and they can operate continuously and quickly, without the need for a break.

For most manufacturing processes, repeatability is critical. Quality depends on consistent manufacturing, and a robot always follows its process. It runs the same every time without operator intervention. No knock against a human worker, but some tasks are just difficult to repeat perfectly day in and day out. A robot follows the same logic and moves through the same path without interruption.

How do Robotics Apply Specifically to a Machine Shop?

A certified machine facility, such as Stecker Machine Company, uses robots to tend CNC machines, which are already automated themselves. CNC robots load and unload a machine center, often picking up heavy parts from a container.

Stecker often uses robots to efficiently run multiple machines. For example, a robot can tend four machines with only one operator, compared to what would require four operators and no robots. The robot takes on all the part lifting, rotating, loading, and some further processing tasks, yielding four times the number of parts to one robot-savvy operator who maintains the robot plus the tooling in the four machines.

Robots can be customized to perform complex functions, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to flexibility, at least in a machine shop setting. Setting up a robotic manufacturing cell takes considerable upfront design. Once it’s running, making changes with minimal downtime often takes engineering and planning. Making even a small change to the input or output part of a robotic manufacturing cell may require altering vision processes, adjusting the load/unload points, changing a grip, and/or altering a deburring path. This often requires stopping the robot, or at least slowing the robot while running production. Whereas a person can adapt to many of these changes with little or no downtime. 

Of course, robotics can be a sizable investment, no matter what size machine shop and what specific customer challenges need addressing. Parts can always be machined with reduced labor and more efficiently, yet that usually involves more upfront expense. Shops need to weigh each situation for future return on potential manufacturing automation investments. 

From Repetitive Tasks to Quality Control

Machine shops maximize the use of robotics when it comes to repetitive tasks. Tending machining centers is done quickly, accurately, and repeatedly by robots as they flip and rotate heavy parts and remove chips and coolant from parts and fixtures.

The importance of robots loading and unloading containers and conveyors cannot be overstated. These material handling abilities remove the physical stress of bending and lifting. A robot can load several pallets between operations, driving efficiency to new heights.

At Stecker, robotic material removal mainly involves deburring. Compliant deburring tools allow for casting and part-to-part variations. Sharp edges are rounded off consistently and efficiently. 

Vision systems allow robots to adapt to changes in part position and orientation. At Stecker, this comes into play first as robots pick castings from shipping containers and parts from conveyors. Vision identifies the part features and compares to a template to determine the part position and rotation. Then the robot can pick the part and precisely locate it in a machine or fixture.

Force sensing systems stop a robot when it cannot achieve a programmed position. For example, a robot may fail to pick up a bent casting that triggers a force alarm and stops the robot. In a well-designed system, nothing is damaged, and the operator can assess the situation and recover.

The Future of Manufacturing

All manufacturers must carefully approach how they adopt robotic processing automation. The robotic solution must be cohesive with other systems. A company needs operator, engineer, quality, and maintenance teams capable of setting up, running, and maintaining the robotic system. Robotics needs space and proven process for automation. Perhaps most importantly, workers and robotics must mesh in the workplace. As automation continues within manufacturing, humans need to expect more and more collaboration with robots to help revolutionize worker job roles and skill sets.

At Stecker, robotics are leveraged to ensure the highest possible performance. Our in-house capabilities optimize the efficiency of processes so we can deliver exactly what our customers need.

OUR MACHINING CAPABILITIES

Matt Oswald

About the Author

Matt leads Stecker Machine's marketing and recruiting projects as well as managing and coordinating improvement initiatives. Matt's skills go beyond machining into other areas including robotics, web/marketing, and leadership. Matt has 14 years of electrical engineering R&D experience with wireless systems and continues to transition into CNC machining, inbound marketing, and everything else. Matt and his wife, Karen, are part owners of SMC.

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