by Dean Elkins
Key considerations for material handling on the shop floor
The decision to implement robotic automation for material handling is a big step that can dynamically change a company’s approach to fabrication, offering undeniable benefits. Made up of many facets, the metal forming industry can be quite demanding, but more affordable and versatile robots are enabling large OEMs and small job shops alike to reliably meet or exceed the toughest demands, adding value to operations.
While the reasons for robot utilization will vary from one organization to the next, the upfront challenges are often the same. Because there is no “one size fits all” approach to automation, it is important for leaders to consider six areas of focus before robotic implementation.
Before choosing a robot and peripherals, it is important to determine if the surrounding area where the robot will be operating is conducive to robotic automation. While a common thread shared among robots is their ability to perform highly repetitive tasks, not all robots are equipped to work in harsh environments.
Always select a robot with an IP rating appropriate for its environment. If an area is too hot the robot is susceptible to environmental elements. Moreover, a robot and tooling without special protection, like a high durability robot cover, could sustain damage. In high temperature instances like this, a cooling unit may need to be installed prior to robot implementation.
Sometimes, robots are required to function in an environment rife with moisture and cold. While more common in the food industry, a setting of this nature presents its own set of challenges, including grease viscosity and cable brittleness.
For these reasons and more, a thorough application assessment is always advised before robot implementation to ensure the robot, application and workers interact safely for optimal production efficiency. As always, a good rule of thumb is to place the robot in an environment where most humans would be comfortable.
A key part of the automation equation has to do with the workpiece itself and the accommodations needed to facilitate the smooth and efficient handling of parts throughout the fabrication process. Primary considerations for material handling include robot payload and reach, usually dictating the size of the robot needed.
Robots and end-of-arm tooling have come a long way in the last decade, providing a myriad of options to help fulfill unique demands. If a manufacturer is looking to handle heavy items like sheet metal, castings and other hefty materials, consider a large-reach heavy payload robot for superior performance. An application requiring better utilization of floorspace may dictate the need for an unconventional style mount such as an inverted robot mount.
While many assembly methods are easy to perform for human workers, not all of them are ideal for robots. For example, the process of using a screw and a nut to fasten a part is easily accomplished by a human, yet it is very challenging for a single robot. That said, flexibility on the factory floor is usually greater if the components being used are designed with automation in mind.
Often considered one of the most important aspects of an assembly process today, component design can make or break the effectiveness of a robotic application. Piece parts constructed for automation follow strict design practices, mirroring each other with snap fits or other one-step fastening procedures for a bottom-up or top-down assembly approach. This type of component design helps to maintain part tolerances and facilitates consistent precision.
From placing parts to locating features, robots can be uniquely equipped to complete multiple tasks.
Improvements in speed and resolution for vision technology have made robots more adept than ever at providing the functionality needed to efficiently and economically fulfill application requirements, and sensors have provided unique advantages, improving robot functionality, part quality and worker safety.
Another item worth weighing is whether multiple robots and mechanisms should be run from one standard machine controller via a unified programming language to facilitate quick and seamless production.
Similarly, the use of tool changers and flexible grippers should be considered as well.
The primary focus of robotic automation for any material handling application is to optimize production output for on-time delivery with as little human interaction as possible.
However, there are certain applications that a robot cannot do on its own, requiring human workers to access the cell area. This factor is key, and it should be a strong influencer on the design and assembly of any robotic workcell. For this purpose, an in-depth risk assessment should be performed for any robot application.
Apart from component design, robot specifications and tooling requirements, decision makers need to consider the application process from beginning to end.
From conceptualizing the feeding of piece parts for fabrication to preparing and transferring the final product for shipping, there is much to coordinate.
Where a robot is concerned, it is important to be sure that all parts being fed are accessible by the robot. Conversely, the application process should not disrupt other aspects of facility operations.
For example, a robust material handling solution should be implemented to enhance workflow without causing shop floor traffic jams.
Effective mapping and execution of the application workflow will optimize overall production. While it is not necessary to use a software platform for managing networked production environments, it is strongly advised. The real-time data collection and visualization capabilities inspired by Industry 4.0 allow companies to synchronize all factory equipment and monitor system performance and health, enabling the implementation of data-driven optimized planning.
While systems of this nature can seem rather complex, the efficient implementation of a robotic system to adapt to customer needs can foster a competitive edge for greater return on investment. SMT
Dean Elkins is segment leader, material handling at Yaskawa America Inc. – Motoman Robotics Division.