Want to know about new developments, options and what’s state-of-the-art for collaborative robots from an insider? Here’s expert advice and insights from a vendor’s technical support specialist.
During Advanced Design & Manufacturing (ADM) Expo Cleveland in March, I stopped by the booth of Universal Robots USA Inc., and had a stimulating chat with Daniel Moore, technical supporter, about collaborative robots. On my return, I found that the last time I had worked with the company was the last time I reported on cobots, in late 2015 (“Experts provide guidance for robots and cobots in packaging”). It was apparent from our discussion that an update was warranted in this high-growth, fast-changing market—one report forecasts collaborative robots growth at an astounding 57% CAGR between 2017 and 2023. Moore was highly cooperative to help bring our packaging audience up to speed regarding the state of cobots in 2018.
What are the most notable changes in cobots since our last article in late 2015?
Moore: 2016 marked the launch of our UR+ developer ecosystem, which allows developers and specialists from other companies, experts in vision and networking and interfacing, to build easy-to-use apps directly into our robot. This online platform allows them to can make complex peripherals as easy to use as the collaborative robot.
What this means is that vision companies have started to focus on User Experience (UX) and Ease of Use. With just a couple presses on the screen, they can use one of the many UR+ vision offerings to set up a number of vision-guided robotic applications.
What’s possible now that wasn’t just two years ago?
Moore: Now there are a host of options for controlling robot motion, extremely sensitive force-sensing and collaborative seven-axis systems for extending the robot’s effective reach.
What’s state of the art with UR?
Moore: We recently unveiled the SnapWeld UR+ app from one of our partners.
What’s next? How will cobots improve?
Moore: Just wait a few months and you’ll see a few new things for yourself, but we are always pushing for more robustness, more ease of use and more expandability.
Reach, even on our largest model, had been an issue for some palletizing operations. That has been largely obviated by adding more options to get to seven axes.
What level of activity and types of applications are you seeing?
Moore: Activity levels remain incredibly high. Last year we grew our global revenue 72% and we’re aiming at keeping similar growth rates for the foreseeable future. Our robots are able to provide automation to the masses: We want every one-, five-, 10- or 50-person shop to benefit from robotics just like the big companies have been doing for decades. Our bread-and-butter remains assembly, machine tending and packing, but we’re also seeing more people embrace robotic welding, plasma spraying and cladding as word-of-mouth reaches more and more small shops.
You mentioned that labor shortages were contributing to the growth of cobots and robotics. What’s been your experience?
Moore: At most every plant I visit, managers complain about labor shortages. Plants that want 100 workers only have 90. Plants that want 10 workers only have 8. There are a lot of socio-economic and political factors playing into why that is the case, but the addition of a robot to a shop that is hungry for labor doesn’t result in anyone getting laid off, but might lead to someone getting a less-repetitive job.
The human-machine interface (HMI) of some packaging machines can now control an integrated robot, for example, on a case packer. What factors into when that’s the best option or not?
Moore: I honestly don’t think there’s a “best” way to do it. It comes down to plant personnel’s skills and capacities. If they want to limit the operator’s interaction with the robot, an HMI is a good way to accomplish that. If they plan on converting their operator into a robot programmer, the HMI makes less sense. If they have someone skilled with HMIs and there are many interacting machines, perhaps it could serve a purpose in coordinating all those machines. But the robot (between the 24V, EthernetIP, Profinet, Modbus and TCP/IP clients) is more than capable of overseeing multiple devices in a cell.
What’s a misconception some have about cobots?
Moore: On one side, we see people who believe they’re not robust enough for complicated tasks or full 24/7 production. On the other side, we get a certain amount of pushback from people who think they’re too good to be true, particularly when we talk about a six-to-nine-month return on investment. Some people are just wary of any new technology, which is why word of mouth is so important.
That’s an impressive ROI! How often do you see that?
Moore: It’s certainly common! We encourage everyone to factor in the local conditions in their plant via one of the many ROI calculators available online, such as this one from Robotiq, a company that makes end effectors for UR. Another of our integrators, MSITec, also offers an online ROI calculator.
Even those calculators won’t factor in many of the hidden benefits of robotics: better consistency, better quality and pace-setting on the assembly line.
What’s the question you hear most from potential users and how do you answer it?
Moore: The question is: “How do I make sure it’s safe?”
The answer is the same way you do any risk assessment: identify points of contact and collision and minimize the probability and severity. Thankfully, the robot contains a comprehensive, programmable list of Safety Settings to fine-tune its sensitivity and speed. It’s easier than ever to have the robot be ultra-sensitive near any potential pinch points or to lock it out from ever approaching an operator’s face even if the operator has badly miss-taught a point.
What’s the biggest takeaway you’d like to leave for readers?
Moore: Yes, our robots are actually easy to program. Yes, it’s suitable for a harsh plant environment. Yes, it can run 24/7. Yes, it really can have an incredibly fast ROI. Since the first prototype was built back in 2005, we’ve been working as hard as we can to make a robot for everyone, but now with a focus on the smallest shops.
To find more cobot and robotics content at Packaging Digest, see www.packagingdigest.com/robotics.
Discover the latest cobots, a dedicated 3D Printing Zone, hundreds of exhibitors and a free 3-day packaging conference at EastPack 2018 (June 12-14, New York City).