Here come the cobots
The UK has a great opportunity to embrace the application of robots and automation in manufacturing, particularly in smaller companies.
Traditional robots can be too complex for small businesses who don't have the staff or expertise to program them - or the high volumes that are generally needed to justify a dedicated installation.
Now, though, technology is becoming more accessible and more SMEs are realising the benefits of using automated processes to bridge the productivity gap and overcome the difficulty of finding skilled labour.
Typical applications include assembly, machine tending, inspection and materials handling.
Robots for SMEs need to be easy to install and program, have the flexibility to cope with large or small volumes and be easy to integrate with other operations. Collaborative robots (cobots) that are designed to work safely alongside human operators seem ready to be able to fill this role.
One of the great advantages of a cobot is that it doesn't need a special permanent enclosure or exclusion zone, so it can be easily set up wherever it is needed - whether it is for an assembly task, for tending a machine, or manoeuvring heavy tools or materials.
They are easy to program too. Rather than teaching in a program using a control pendant the robot head can be simply guided by hand through the cycle.
That makes automation affordable even for small batches and once that job is done the cobot can easily be set up for a completely different task.
Using a cobot, humans can do what people do best - higher value jobs requiring judgement and skill -- and robots can do what robots do best, jobs that are dangerous, dull, repetitive or require heavy loads to be manipulated.
Looking at the wider picture of robot developments for manufacturing processes, robots continue to get faster and more accurate. At the same time, the integration of vision and sensor systems, digital connectivity, offline programming and simulation are transforming the way that robots can be used.
Vision systems can remove the need for bespoke handling equipment as parts can be picked from a conveyor or bin and accurately orientated for the next process -- this again adds flexibility for small production runs.
Built-in sensors allow robots to adapt to changing process conditions in real time, reducing defects and improving quality. By constantly monitoring the condition of the machine, patterns can be identified that warn when a part needs replacing before it causes a costly breakdown. Connectivity allows this data to be shared with the service personnel of the supplier. And by sharing data in the cloud, robots performing similar tasks can learn from each other and constantly refine and improve the processes they are carrying out.
Offline simulation and programming allow complete cells to be set up away from production - eliminating bottlenecks, refining trajectories and optimising cycle times - dramatically speeding up installation and commissioning.
MACH 2020 will feature international leaders in industrial robots, including ABB, Fanuc and Comau, as well as machine tool suppliers such as Mills CNC that have integrated collaborative robots into their product range. It will be the ideal opportunity to bridge your productivity gap.