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Collaborative robots: Tips and advice for beginners

Collaborative robots: Tips and advice for beginners
Cobots can be used anywhere human workers are found, and are particlarly suitable for tedious, boring tasks.

A collaborative robot can do anything a human can do—and with a one-month ROI. This and other insights, advice and best practices for using cobots in packaging and other applications were shared in a recent webinar.

In a July 21 webinar from Design News entitled Getting started with collaborative robots, presenter Etienne Samson, technical support manager, Robotiq, dispensed practical advice for beginning users of collaborative robots (cobots). “Collaborative robots are trendy,” said Samson. “Medium and small-size operations are looking to increase productivity and reduce costs.”

Automation is one strategy to do this while cobots are but one tactic to implement that strategy.

“A collaborative robot is a classic industrial robot, but is intrinsically safe,” offered Samson by way of definition. “[Cobots] are teachable and easy to use for people not experts in industrial robots, which [often are housed] in big cages for safety.”

One factoid I found especially interesting: A 12-month return-on-investment is standard for all robots, though the ROI is shrinking to close to a month for a cobot.

He noted that the Top 3 Applications for Cobots are Machine tending; packaging; and material handling.

In a live poll taken during the webinar, 49% of attendees stated that, yes, they plan to implement a collaborative robot.

In another live poll (above),  about 10% of attendees who selected applications they would like to automate indicated that would be for packaging.

“Packaging applications are for redundant end of line pick-and-place operations and often used in conjunction with a vision system,” said Samson.

Other related applications of interest included machine loading/unloading and pick-and-place. Combined, these three segments of interest were selected by a tidy 50.0% of participants.

If a human can do it, so can a cobot

Samson outlined the limitations of cobots that include reach, payload and precision. “Cobots can do anything a human can do,” he said. “If the task is too fast for a human, then it’s too fast for a cobot and the user would need a hard (industrial) robot.

“They can go in any location where human workers are; cobot are especially suitable for doing tedious, boring jobs. Ideal operations are those where work is sporadic and there are idle machines from time to time that could be tended by robots working two or three shifts daily.

“If you remove tedious tasks, everyone will be happy [with a cobot install].”

Next advice and Q&A responses

Advice for a successful robotic installation:

Start with easy and simple pick-and-place operation vs. one requiring force control and complex logic.

Safety: Robots are inherently safe, but the actual safety depends on what tasks are performed by the robot such as having it using objects or tooling that is sharp. “Conduct a risk assessment,” he emphasized.

One idea he shared that meshes the need for productivity with safety is to surround the cobot with a light curtain to detect the presence of humans. The programming would reduce, but not stop, the speed of the robot in the space until the human leaves the work envelope before it returns to normal.

He noted that specific safety standards depend on your industry and location.

[Ed. Note: This article is helpful in that regard: Robots and humans can work together with new ISO guidance]

Parts 1: Having limited number of regular shapes vs. wide range of irregular or fragile items.

Parts 2: Known parts are easy vs. those requiring precision or force control.

Presentation: Random infeed requires vision system.

Programming: Repetitive tasks are easier vs. complex logic requiring sensor input.

A cobotic Q&A

As is usually the case, the Question & Answer session is often as illuminating as the formal presentation. Samson addressed these questions among others at the conclusion of his presentation, which included several questions posed by Packaging Digest.

What level of employee is the ideal cobot team champion?

Any interested person with a technical background, though you don’t have to be an engineer. However, the classic champion is an engineer with an industrial background who knows what to do and how to do it. A background in automation is less important than for the classic industrial robot.

What’s the cost of a basic installation? $50,000.

Can end tooling be changed by a robot? Yes, using a tool changer.

What determines the end-of-arm tolling or gripper? Hydraulics/pneumatics are the classic methods for applications needing strong, fast operations with limited motion.

Electric grippers are more flexible and easy to teach.

What’s a common misconception about cobots? That cobots are always safe. Yes, cobots are safe on their own, but it depends on what it does such, for example, having an unsafe payload.

Safety depends on the overall risk assessment for the application, not only for the robot.

Can a cobot be wall mounted? Yes. For example, some robots from Universal Robots can be mounted on a wall or reoriented and reprogrammed to operate from a different orientation.

The webinar can be viewed on-demand and the webinar slide decks is available for those who register.

Ed. Note: More information on how cobots affect the workforce from rethink robotics can be found here.


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