Flexible Manufacturing with Robots

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Over the past few years, flexibility has become extremely important to manufacturers. As global competition has increased due to the expansion of e-commerce, manufacturers are realizing the importance of being able to meet the needs of consumers. Greater competition has resulted in shorter consumer attention spans, demand for greater customization, and the need to offer competitive prices. Product turnover has become higher as companies look to keep up with their competitors and offer the latest innovations. Rapidly advancing technology is also causing higher product turnover. Companies are having to quickly adapt from high volume, repetitive operations to those with a high mix of products and volumes. Many are realizing the best way to gain flexible manufacturing is through automating with industrial robots.

How Industrial Robots Allow for Flexible Manufacturing

There are several ways in which industrial robots allow for flexible manufacturing. Factory robots themselves are a form of flexible automation, meaning they can adapt to product, process, or volume changes. Industrial robot arms can automate a wide variety of applications. The ABB 2600-20 is a multipurpose robot that can be used for several different production related tasks. Fixed automation systems can only be used for a single task or product. When that product’s lifecycle ends the equipment is decommissioned and new equipment must be purchased for a new project. This takes up considerable time and is more expensive in the long run. The FANUC LR Mate 200ic on the other hand, can be reprogrammed and redeployed for the new project. This saves manufacturers considerable time and money. The adaptability of robot manipulators gives manufacturers the flexibility to quickly adapt and launch new projects.

Advancements in robotic programming and technology have also created greater manufacturing flexibility for companies. When process changes are needed, manufacturers often need to adapt quickly to meet current consumer demand. In the past, long articulated robot programming times hindered the use of robots for flexible manufacturing. Robotic programming has become more user-friendly, helping to speed up the programming process. Off-line robotic programming allows a new application to be developed for the Yaskawa MH50 without having to remove it from production. Hand guidance programming used for collaborative robots allows for the quickest changeover times. The Universal UR5 can be retasked within minutes which is ideal for those with high mix and low volume operations.

The introduction of technology such as robotic tool changers and robotic vision systems has also allowed for more flexible manufacturing. Tool changers automate the switching of EOATs, shortening changeover times between applications for robots. The KUKA KR10 R1100 can switch tooling within a minute with a tool changer. Tool changers allow robotic manipulators to automate multiple tasks back to back. Prior to tool changers it could take several hours to switch end-effectors, making it difficult to justify automating more than one application.

Vision systems allow six axis robots to adjust to changes while operating through visual feedback. With vision systems handling robots can handle mixes of parts, adapt to varying locations, or adjust to application path variations without the need to be reprogrammed. Vision enhances the operation of industrial robot arms, allowing them to adapt to variables.

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