Friday Fun Video: Automate at a Glance

January 25, 2013

The 2013 Automate Show closed yesterday, with preliminary reports of a 40% increase in attendance from the 2011 show and good feelings from exhibitors all around. The Automate Show also allowed the robotic and automation industries to voice their success stories to the press, who’ve recently been focused on a negative portrayal of robotics.

Here’s a glimpse of several live demos at the Automate Show from the New York Times.

And who’s faster? Man or machine? An Automate attendee has a little fun at the Adept Technology booth.

Thanks to the staff of A3, the exhibitors, and everyone who worked hard to make this year’s Automate Show a success. We’ll see you all again in 2015!

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Industry Pros See Positive Outlook for Robotics in 2013

January 8, 2013

December always wraps up with a look at the past year and January always starts with a look towards the future. What will 2013 bring for the robotics industry? Bennett Brumon checks in with several top industry professionals to see what trends and market shifts they’re predicting.

Robotics Industry Expected to Thrive in 2013
by Bennett Brumon , Contributing Editor

Most players in the robotics industry are sanguine on the prospects of nearly all applications in 2013. “I think 2013 will be awesome. General industry is historically two years behind the rebound of the automotive industry, following an economic downturn. The automotive industry did not buy anything for a few years then came on strong,” says Edward Minch, Automotive Group Director of Sales and Engineering at Kawasaki Robotics (USA) Inc. (Wixom, Michigan). “General industry is taking care of capital investment it ignored during the recession.”

Likewise, Mick Estes, General Manager at FANUC Robotics America Corp. (Rochester Hills, Michigan) says, “I expect to see continued growth in the automotive industry with increasing investment of robotics in the power train sector. Tier Two suppliers continue to invest in robotics to remain competitive on the world market.”

Estes also anticipates strong growth in general industry. “Packaging and palletizing applications as well as assembly for the general industrial market will increase.”

John Bubnikovich, Executive Director of Marketing and Business Development at ABB Inc. (Auburn Hills, Michigan) speaks of the continuing role of the automotive sector within the robotics industry. “The automotive sector still accounts for 65 percent of the North American robotics market. Automotive’s revitalization has been very influential in the great bounce-back the robotics industry has seen recently.”

Bubnikovich goes on to say, “Robotic laser cutting is emerging as an optimal means to cut and trim hot-stamped steel, a light weight, high strength material increasingly used in the automotive industry to reduce the overall cost and weight of cars while improving passenger safety and fuel economy.”

Bin picking is one application several leaders in the robotics industry have high hopes for in 2013. “I see rapid expansion of three-dimensional bin picking, the ability to retrieve randomly arranged products from a bin,” says John Burg, President of Ellison Technologies Automation (Council Bluffs, Iowa).

Terry Zarnowski, Director of Sales and Marketing with Schneider Packaging Equipment Co. Inc. (Brewerton, New York) has a similar outlook for the prospects of bin picking in 2013. “Bin picking is now a viable reality.”

Minch sees advancements in vision technology combined with improved force sensing, as one of numerous bright spots for the robotics industry. “These advancements will help the robotics industry penetrate into new markets, such as consumer electronic equipment and automotive component assembly and random bin picking. Robots can ‘see’ and have a sense of touch. Force sensors use feedback from servomotors to tell how hard the robot is pushing on a part during assembly processes such as driving a screw.”

Read more at Robotics Online. What trends do you see for the robotics industry in 2013?

To see more of the latest robotics technology, come to Automate 2013, Jan. 21-24 in Chicago. See live demos, talk with industry pros, and find your automation solution! We’ve designed Automate 2013 with small and medium sized businesses in mind so start the new year off right — register for your free show pass today!


Robots Assist Farmers in the Agricultural Industry

May 18, 2012

Robots are a staple in the food and beverage industry, especially when it comes to sorting, picking, and packaging. However, how often do you see a robot working at the start of the production process, outside of the factory and on the farm?

From Science Fiction To Fact, Robots Are Coming To A Farm Near You
by Jeremy Bernfeld

[S]ome dairies are trying out new milking technology. It goes beyond just a little attachment to a cow’s udder that squeezes the milk out. This takes it a step further, using a robotic arm to prepare and clean the udders, attach the milking equipment, and monitor the cow’s health. (Check out the cool video here)

Robot technologies like these can buy farmers a little more time off.

“Just this past Christmas we had a customer of ours that had started up two of our (robotic milkers) with their herd,” says Mark Futcher, product manager for an automatic milking machine made by DeLaval. “That Christmas morning was the first time that gentleman had ever been witness to his children finding their Christmas stockings.”

Read the full article here on Capital Public Radio. What other ways can robots help out our farmers?


Automation in the Cloud

January 26, 2012

By Rush LaSelle, VP & General Manager, Adept Technology, Inc.

Originally posted 01/07/2012 on Robotics Online.

Manufacturers and processors of anything from snack foods to automobiles are being driven to offer higher levels of variety in what they offer their customers. Invariably, supply chain power is shifting to buyers and consumers. This shift has been driven by numerous factors including the proliferation of information available to shoppers on all forms of digital devises effectively creating larger consideration sets. As the choices have increased, sellers and ultimately suppliers are forced to increasingly adhere to fads and rapidly changing consumer sentiment to retain market share. If we were to define the optimal supply chain to meet this trend it would be one where any item, no matter its level of complexity, would be produced on demand. Further, even the most commoditized and low costs items such as confectionary would be produced in a batch size of one to permit mass customization. This would enable a buyer to select a picture of the family dog from their iPad, upload it to a manufacturer’s website and a few days later a delivery van would arrive at your door with a box of chocolates each in the shape of Scruffy.

Markets are best served by catering to the individual tastes and preferences of the consumer. Therefore, we are beholden to understand how manufacturing must adapt to move past today’s batch processes to achieve a batch size of one. The innovation required to enable manufacturers to offer this, the ultimate level of production flexibility, will be drawn from fast-paced/cutting edge/advanced industries such as gaming and information technology.

Enter cloud manufacturing as technologies exist in all facets of packaging, labeling and decorating product to permit rapid change of color patterns and form. The pacing item is process control and ultimately the information from the consumer. And with the unprecidented speed of digital connections between people and the commercial world through social networks and alike, this valuable information can now be made more quickly/easily available to manufacturers through the cloud. Cloud manufacturing represents the convergence of information, learned processes, and intelligent motion or activity.

Definition
Cloud Manufacturing is a model for enabling convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable manufacturing resources (e.g., robotics, control systems, networks, applications, and services) permitting the comparison of digital process control with physical operation. The networking of sensory input, databases, and computing resources facilitates the management of sufficient data to recognize complex patterns and execute algorithms to evolve behaviors. Reconciliation of environmental conditions and information available in the cloud permits mechatronics to serve as the conduit between the digital and physical world.

Dynamic Process Control
To illustrate the concept, consider a robot tasked with dispensing icing on a cake. Today a robot is programmed to process certain patterns and graphics taught by its user. The robot would be outfitted with the ability to dispense various colors with different nozzles and the system would produce cakes with various images. In a highly controlled environment, a cell with set programmed paths will produce the images without incident. However, what happens if the environment and/or process changes. Consider the impact of the following:

  • Viscosity of the icing
  • Temperature within the facility
  • Humidity

Viscosity of the icing is critical and most closely controlled. To keep the viscosity the same, the cake decorator is most likely locked into a single supplier to ensure consistency. In the event that the decorator produces his or her own icing, the level of process control to maintain the consistency is costly.

Temperatures in facilities affect a large number of parameters in the process. If the cake is cooled in ambient conditions it is subject to the changes in the plant’s temperature, which may impact the dimensions of the cake when it comes to the automated decorating station. If the icing sits in the delivery system for a period of time and the facility’s temperature varies day to day, the viscosity and properties of the icing are altered in kind.

Like temperature, humidity can impact numerous steps in the process. A higher level of moisture in the batter during one shift changes how the cake rises or its dimensions as it cools from the cakes produced the previous shift.

In some cases simple localized sensory input can adjust for environmental changes. If the cake height changes due to temperature, humidity, or upstream process changes, a variety of sensors could provide an input to the robot to offset the dispense height to accommodate the change. This signifies a defined rule-based solution and is far from complex.

Viscosity can be measured though numerous sensing devises located in the delivery equipment or lines. With the appropriate delivery mechanisms, the manner in which the icing is pumped through the lines and ultimately though each nozzle can be profiled and managed to adjust for the changes in viscosity.

Therefore, it would appear through a rule-based system and the implementation of sensors that the cake-decorating system can accommodate environmental changes, correct? Not so fast. As humidity changes and temperature goes up or down the icing exhibits different properties of adhesion and set-up. So, while the robot is dispensing at the right height and the right volume, the desired flower image changes from a carnation to a dandelion. The interaction of the various environmental factors and effects now represent complex patterns.

When the inputs or variables become sufficiently large, this model exceeds what manageable rule-based solutions are capable of solving. In our cake-decorating example we are now going to add 3D vision which will record the decorated cake. The image will be analyzed with set parameters to determine if the critical features are within spec. The image will be correlated to environmental data to catalog plant temperature, humidity, icing, viscosity, cake height, and any other inputs we care to monitor. As the process compares predicted outcomes to actual outcomes, the system has the ability to dynamically adjust the process. Over time as patterns develop with the information, the process will evolve to where for all combinations of environmental conditions the system will learn how to modify the path of the robot to reliable draw a carnation.

Cloud manufacturing enables machine learning given the networking of expected results or those stored in a database, input from what is observed in the environment, and comparison of the predicted outcome with the actual. In this model, the robotic system is the networking device that provides sensory input and ultimately uses the information processed in the cloud to intelligently process the part. Hence the robots act as the connection between the digital and physical.

Batch Size of One
Let’s continue with our example of decorating cakes and return to the desire to personalize products for each individual consumer. The concept of cloud manufacturing allows access to a network where the consumer resides. In a basic model our baker has a website where a customer can upload a photo of their child playing lacrosse with the expectation that this photo will be reproduced on a birthday cake. This is a simple printing process for our baker, and there are web services that provide this service. But our baker wants to reproduce this image with depth to it as opposed to having it solely in one dimension like a photo.

When the system was set-up to make a carnation the decorator had programmed the robot to dispense the icing at a specified rate, in the right place, at a precise angle, and for the appropriate amount of time so that it created a layer of the image. It would continue to make layers of the icing on the cake’s surface until it produced the desired pattern and image. It is unlikely that this was a one pass programming effort, most likely it took time and refinement, (and many cakes) to get an image that would finally meet the decorator’s artistic standards.
The challenge with the baker’s business model is that the decorator won’t have the luxury of processing the lacrosse picture numerous times due to the material loss and decorating machine availability required to tune the system for set-up.

Once again, we find a scenario where the patterns and data set are so large that it moves beyond where rule-based programming is feasible. Over time and through iterations, a database will eventually be built and the behavior of the decorating machine will evolve to where the interaction with the icing already deposited and that coming from the nozzle will be understood and the robot can process accordingly.

Reduction in Programming
To realize greater flexibility, manufacturing has come to depend on robotic automation to deliver incrementally better levels of customization for production and packaging. One of the greatest barriers to deployment and the largest complaint from users of industrial robots is the programming. Many have asked why they must become proficient in dedicated languages to accomplish moderately straight forward tasks using robots or mechatronics as a whole. The cloud offers solutions to these challenges today and offers even greater promise for the future.

Manufacturers have used networks in the manner defined by cloud computing where programs are stored remotely and shared across networks. If a cell installed in California is to be replicated in Beijing, a back-up located on a server is transferred to the machine, a calibration routine is implemented, and the program is shared. This effectively enables an operator in China to leverage the development or work done by a programmer in California. As languages become increasingly open, algorithms and canned routines will be available in the cloud so that programmers can pull blocks as opposed to always having to program from scratch.

Machines are just beginning to gain the ability to search for these blocks and with certain conditions implement them to affect their activities dynamically. In another example, a recycling plant uses robots to pick glass from a paper line. Today the robot is programmed to identify and remove hundreds of unique types of glass and sort them for optimal recycling. The robot determines all the known products using an onboard processor, which would have been programmed by identifying each product with a local camera. Not only is training the system to recognize hundreds of unique glass types cumbersome and prone to error, it leaves the system unable to adapt to unknown parameters and foreign materials.

If, however, the recycling system were to harness computational capabilities and information from the cloud, it might search terabytes of information to identify an object previously unseen at this system’s location. This would function very similar to how web crawlers search the web today for any other type of information when keyed into a computer or smart device. In this scenario once the item is matched to an image in the cloud, a resulting action would be performed as the image is crowded or grouped into a product class or family which would instruct the robot how to manipulate and place the item.

This now reduces the programming requirements for a system while simultaneously expanding  its flexibility almost infinitely. The result is a system which costs significantly less to deploy and provides much greater economic value to the manufacturers or recycler in this example.

Ecosystem Drivers
The concept of cloud manufacturing is not solely driven by the demand for ever-increasing levels of flexibility and efficiency in deploying automated systems. As noted earlier, there is a supply side effect where technology and networks are now enabling higher levels of speed and low-cost processing previously unavailable. Factory automation and robotics must begin to view themselves not as industrial islands, but as devices within an information ecosystem. Historically, manufacturing equipment’s only connection to its environment included a power source, input of raw materials and output of processed goods. As such it was not adaptable to any form of change. During the industrial revolution while goods were finally being made cost-effective to where consumers could afford items previously considered a luxury, buyers were offered any color car they wanted from Ford as long as it was black. The industry focused on employing technology to enable mechanical processes to produce faster and more consistent products but flexibility was not an essential requirement.

As manufacturing begins participating in the information revolution, machinery and automation will generate and consume greater amounts of data to where they can offer higher levels of quality through dynamic process control, provide the flexibility to satisfy and insatiable consumer appetite for mass customization, and ultimately decrease costs of implementation through learned heuristics. Unlike the productivity gains of the Henry Ford era, today’s gains will be driven though better utilizing processing information technologies.

It can be expected that over the coming years that manufacturing will more fully capitalize on the information ecosystem surrounding it. This ecosystem spans the networking and data storage industries to the human machine interfaces currently being deployed by consumer electronics manufacturers and gaming technologies. As the automation industry begins its reach into the cloud, manufacturing communities will not only improve productivity, they will begin to reclaim the prominence the industry once claimed in the economy.


Robotics Industry Poised for Another Banner Year in 2012

January 11, 2012

by Bennett Brumson, Contributing Editor
Robotic Industries Association
Posted 01/06/2012

Six-axis delta robot uses vision to detect randomly-oriented connector pins on a conveyor, courtesy FANUC Robotics America Corp“2012 will be a great year for the robotics industry. All industries are up and new market areas are growing. Food, assembly, and automotive took off during 2010 and continued into 2011. Expect to see the momentum of 2011 to carry over into 2012.” This optimistic view of the robotics industry’s 2012 outlook by Mick Estes, General Manager of Distribution, Sales, and System Integration with FANUC Robotics America Corporation (Rochester Hills, Michigan) is the consensus perspective of many industry leaders.

In most applications and regions around the globe, the robotics industry can look forward to a prosperous 2012.

Continued Growth
Led by the automotive sector, robot orders in 2012 have the potential to surpass the mark set in 2011 which marked the beginning of a major rebound in the industry. “I see continued growth in the robotics industry. With the freeing up of pent-up demand, and more automotive programs being retooled, the automotive sector continues to lead the charge in general industry recovery,” says Dean Elkins, a Senior General Manager at Yaskawa America Inc.’s Motoman Robotics Division (Miamisburg, Ohio). “I see continued growth in food and beverage, pharmaceutical, and laboratory applications.”

Elkins does not see any sectors declining in 2012. “I am watching solar with great interest because of the political ensnarements. I see steady growth in most applications.”

Echoing Elkins, Estes says, “The automotive industry will continue to be the hub that will thrive in 2012. Offshoots of the automotive industry such as battery assembly applications for electric cars and hybrids will help grow the robotics industry. With the new fuel efficiency standards, expect to see more carbon fiber lay-up processes to help reduce vehicle weight.”

Estes goes on to add, “We have seen tremendous growth in the automotive market and expanding into new segments such as battery assembly and carbon fiber. Those areas continue to be where all robot companies will see growth.”

Lean robotic welding package, courtesy ABB Inc.Elkins and Estes’ sentiments are shared by Joseph Campbell, Vice President of ABB’s Robots and Applications Group (Auburn Hills, Michigan), who says, “2012 will be a good year for the robotics industry, better than 2011. We see growth in many automotive programs, from new domestics in the Big Three to tier-one suppliers. New models are coming on-line and car makers need to invest in the robotics needed to build them.” Campbell also anticipates growth in the general industry sector as well as seeing increases in aerospace applications.

Likewise, John Burg, President of Ellison Technologies Automation (Council Bluffs, Iowa) says, “I think the robotics industry will have a good year in 2012. The aerospace sector is very good and getting better and I hear picking, packaging, and palletizing end-users are busy as is our customer base.” Ellison’s customer base includes makers of agricultural implements. “Agriculture equipment manufacturers are on fire right now and cannot build fast enough. Prices to their customers are going through the roof but farmers are still buying their equipment.”

Continuing, Burg says, “Construction equipment is extremely positive, but could be affected by another slow-down in construction. The Bobcat Company (Bismarck, North Dakota) is very busy and cannot fulfill customer orders fast enough. Bobcat is one of Ellison’s biggest customers, making skid-steer loaders.” The construction sector is driven by housing starts, which is not very active, adds Burg.

Robotic machine tending application, courtesy Ellison Technologies AutomationThrough the grapevine, Ellison’s John Burg hears that robotics in food applications are on the rise globally. “An agricultural implement maker told me that people in the Third World recently had their first taste of really good food and want more of it. World-wide demand for good food is growing very briskly and farm equipment manufacturers are getting orders from all over the world so that people in Third World countries can grow their own good food.” Burg sees continued proliferation of food-related robotic applications in 2012 and beyond.

Burg agrees that the automotive sector will shine in 2012. “Automotive is extremely brisk, with new models of cars and other vehicles planned, with new engines and transmissions.”

Palletizing applications within warehouses promises healthy growth in 2012, says Nino LaDuca. “We will see more business focusing on end-of-line palletizing. We go after that application because we see huge growth in those processes. Tech-Con recently provided integrated palletizing systems for food and beverage companies in Ontario. Two were first-time buyers of robots.” LaDuca is Tech-Con’s General Manager, located in Burlington, Ontario, Canada. “Based on what I saw from our robotic suppliers and our customers in 2011, 2012 will be a strong year,” LaDuca concludes.

Meeting the robotic needs of warehouses and similar applications in 2012 was on the mind of John Dulchinos, President and Chief Executive Officer of Adept Technology Inc. (Pleasanton, California). “We see exciting programs for mobile robotics to intelligently move goods to and from production lines. In warehouses, robots are moving product from docks to shelves. In hospitals, robotics move goods from and around laboratories, such as medicines from pharmacies to nursing stations.”

Dulchinos says possibilities for mobile robotics in warehouse logistics will increase in 2012. “Logistics within warehouses have not been largely automated yet. Opportunities for robots in warehouses, clean-rooms, hospitals and laboratories, where goods must be moved dynamically, with traceability and predictability, will increase in 2012. Robots are a very good solution to applications in warehouses and laboratories.”

Elkins shares Dulchinos’ excitement of robotics potential in warehouses and distribution centers in 2012. “I am excited about robots in warehouse and distribution applications, where three-dimensional vision can find randomly arrayed boxes and cases on pallets. The countless number of distribution centers in the world can benefit by implementing robotics.” Elkins says tactile feedback, force-sensing technology and vision enables the placement of robots into applications not successfully done until now.

Related to warehouse distribution are food and beverage applications. “The food market for robotics has taken off in recent years. Robots are handling raw food, doing high-speed picking of product and doing secondary packaging as well as palletizing,” says Estes. Similarly, Campbell says, “In 2012, we see continued growth in food applications which have solid market motivators. The food market has labor availability issues and food processors continually drive to remove the human touch from food processing.”

Robots.edu
The push to increase the awareness of robotics in education will continue into 2012 say several leaders in the robot industry. “Robotics are growing in education. The Robotic Industries Association (RIA, Ann Arbor, Michigan) pushes to get robots into university classrooms,” says Estes. “We see educating young people as an area with growth potential. As we look to grow the robot industry, educating engineering students about new and emerging robot sectors is important.”

LaDuca has a similar take on the importance of education to the robotics industry. “Education is a big thing and robot companies donate robots to technical schools, universities, and local colleges as part of their training curriculum. Our customers go with what they know and if students are taught with a particular make of robot, they will stick to that brand when moving onto the shop floor.”

ABB’s Campbell concurs. “At Vincennes University (Vincennes, Indiana), I see students programing welding robots, learning how to make parts. Vincennes’ robot laboratory has students lined up learning how to program the two dozen robots.” According to Campbell, “Vincennes has a fantastic robot education program.” In fact, ABB, FANUC Robotics America Corporation and several other RIA member companies have stepped forward to further robotics education by sponsoring educational institutions through membership in the association (program details: www.robotics.org/EduSponsor).

Robots Going Global
The robotics market in Japan, Western Europe, and North America has been mature for several years. Markets in less developed countries will see significant growth over the course of 2012, says Robert Little, Chief Operating Officer of ATI Industrial Automation (Apex, North Carolina). “The automotive sector is very big in the United States and internationally. Growth of robotics in Brazil, China and India, are heavily tied to automotive growth and these countries see exponential growth in their automotive markets.”

Robot with tool changers, courtesy ATI Industrial AutomationLittle focuses on China. “2012 will be a good year for Brazil but I am a little worried that China’s automotive market might be a bit of a bubble that could burst.”

Little does see interest in non-automotive applications picking up in China. “Non-automotive applications will become more popular in China, which is interesting because labor is so inexpensive there. I did not expect growth in non-automotive applications in countries with low-cost labor, but interestingly the trend is towards more non-automotive robotic applications in China.” 2012 could be a record year for non-automotive robots in China, added Little.

Dulchinos also sees opportunities continuing for the robotics market in China during 2012. “China is the fastest growing robotics market and I am confident China will emerge as the largest robot market in the next year or two. The robot market in China will become larger than the robotics market in Brazil, India, and Eastern Europe combined.”

The robotics market in China, Eastern Europe and Latin America, largely driven by Brazil, will flourish in 2012 for similar reasons robots spread through Japan, Western Europe and North America, says Dulchinos. “Robotic applications will increase in China, Eastern Europe and Latin America as wages go up. Labor shortages and quality issues drive the mechanization of China.”

Campbell agrees with Dulchinos’ analysis. “The robotics market in China is explosive. Five years ago, I would not have said China will be a big robot market because of its huge labor pool. That paradigm is starting to change because China’s labor pool is stressed, has a very high job turnover rate and sees high wage growth.” Campbell cited a recent article that predicts wage parity between the United States and China in a matter of years. (http://www.bcg.com/media/PressReleaseDetails.aspx?id=tcm:12-75973)

“The robotics market in Latin America is on fire,” says John Burg. “The growth in those markets as a percentage will outstrip the very sophisticated North American market. I see huge growth for the robotics industry in Latin America over the next five years.”

Re-Shoring
Despite expansion of manufacturing into Eastern Europe, India, Latin America and China, businesses see robotics as a means to keep production at home or even bring industry back in 2012. “I see more on-shoring, production processes coming back to the United States from offshore. On-shoring only works through robotics,” says Campbell.

Like Campbell, Burg thinks robotics enable bringing production back home. “Many manufacturers found the answer was not to send production offshore. Off-shoring production has pitfalls such as quality and consistency.”

Motoman’s Dean Elkins brings numbers to justify investing in robotics rather than moving production offshore. “Operating a medium or small robot cost about 15 cents an hour, compared to the labor rate in China of $3 per hour.”

Notes of Caution
The rapid expansion of the robotics industry could have its own pitfalls, says Little. “The robotics industry has doubled its output of units since 2009. I cannot expect that level of growth to continue into 2012 but a growth rate of 15 percent in 2012 is likely. A high growth rate makes some nervous because a bubble might be created. I have concluded that the large run the robotics industry is going through now is not completed.”

Dulchinos also expresses a hint of wariness. “My only caveat is that robots are a capital asset. 2012 could be negatively affected by the economic environment due to factors outside the control of the robotics industry. Aside from that, 2012 will be a very strong year for the robotics industry.”

Prognosis: Good
2012 looks like another banner year for the robotics industry across all sectors. Joe Campbell sums up the opinions of his peers in the industry. “I do not see any place where robotics fails to gain a foothold. Robotics will have traction in all markets in 2012.”

Read the article here on the RIA’s website, www.robotics.org.


Robots in Consumer Goods

May 3, 2011

As seen in Robotics Online by Bennett Brumson

As robots and their control systems become more powerful and flexible, robotics are moving from heavy industrial applications into producing consumer products we all use in our daily lives. Fickle consumers demand products in new forms, which plays to the strength of robotics’ inherent flexibility to change while keeping production local. Vision-enabled robots are also used in warehouse distribution systems and to test consumer goods for quality control.

“Robots are used in a very broad swath of consumer products, from food and beverage, to office supplies, to building materials. Robots are gaining broad acceptance in the consumer arena for primary packaging in the food sector through palletizing at the end of the production line,” declares Dean Elkins, Senior General Manager at the Motoman Robotics Division of Yaskawa America Inc. (West Carrollton, Ohio)

Range of Products, Range of Motion

Consumer products vary much more than automobiles or aerospace items and manufacturers require flexibility to keep up with ever-changing customer demand. These demand changes could occur over the course of a single production run, presents Philip Baratti, Applications Engineering Manager with EPSON Robots (Carson, California) “EPSON integrated an application for an energy drink, where the robot received four different types of product. The packaging and size were the same but the labels were different. The robot identified the product’s type and orientation,” expresses Baratti. “We singulated the product into its individual package.”

Unlike automotive applications, Baratti explains that EPSON’s drink packaging application was both high mix and high volume. “The differences are the environment and payloads. Consumer products are lighter, have higher cycle rates and are made in greater quantities than heavy industrial applications,” Baratti adds.

Elkins also talks about the rise of robotics in the food industry. “We see broader acceptance of robotics in food applications. Manufacturers must meet sanitation standards and robots are more compliant to meet those standards, particularly where the robot is directly touching the food prior to primary packaging.” Elkins says food-handling robots must use food-grade grease and have high quality paint to withstand cleaning requirements in these facilities. “Additionally, robots in the food industry must be designed to insure the safety of the product being produced.”

Likewise, John Schwan, Director of Sales and Marketing with QComp Technologies Inc. (Greenville, Wisconsin) sees both openings as well as challenges for robotics in the food industry. “The biggest opportunity I see for robotics is in the food industry. Inconsistency from product to product is a challenge but I see progress in getting right sized robots into direct food contact applications. Some food processors have welcomed the robots and see the advantages robotics can bring while others are very skeptical due to United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors not allowing certain robots in food zones.”

Schwan contends that relatively few small size robots meet USDA sanitation requirements. “Robot manufacturers are making progress in designing robots for the food area. Food manufacturers must work with inspectors to determine how robots can be used safely in their industry.”

Robotics help save time and energy in the food industry. In a commercial bread baking example, Dick Motley, Senior Account Manager for FANUC Robotics America Corp. (Rochester Hills, Michigan) recalls how. “An end-user in the baking industry manually loaded and unloaded ovens. Bakeries are not an ergonomic place to work due to bending and burn hazards. A robot is able to fill all slots, realizing an 80 percent increase in the oven’s capacity,” Motley reports. “Ovens are no longer wasting energy on empty air slots so the end-user saw a 50 percent increase in energy savings.”

Keeping pace with erratic consumer taste is on the mind of Kenneth McLaughlin, P.Eng, Automation Systems Director at JMP Engineering Inc. (London, Ontario, Canada) “Products vary from day to day. Producing a particular product is simply a matter of selecting the right program on the robot and the vision system’s camera. If manufacturers get a new requirement due to fickle consumers, end-users have a system that is reprogrammable and re-deployable. If the product becomes a different color, size or shape, robotic technology is flexible enough to handle those changes.”

McLaughlin uses chainsaw manufacturing as an example of the ability to reprogram robots on the fly, an impossibility with hard automation. “Compared to cars, the volume of chainsaw production is much less but with much more variability. A big chainsaw is much larger relative to a small chainsaw compared to large and small cars.” A large car is not three times the size of a small one, but a large chainsaw can be three times the size of a smaller model, McLaughlin argues.

Manufacturers of personal care products increasingly use robotics in their facilities. “Electric shavers are an example of where robots act as an enabler to production. Electric shavers have a complex assembly, consisting of a large number of small components,” points out Rush LaSelle, Global Sales and Marketing Director at Adept Technology Inc. (Pleasanton, California) “To enable the production of a wide range of electric shavers, one manufacturer elected to use robotics to bring loose or randomly orientated parts to the assembly area. Using a vision system, the robot identifies parts and does inspection in some cases.”

LaSelle notes that robotics are also used more and more in the cosmetic industry. “Cosmetics manufacturers look to offer greater flexibility in marketing and how their products are packaged. The demand to satisfy more stock keeping units (SKUs) and faster package changeovers drive producers of cosmetic products to employ robotics in applications previously served by conventional or custom machinery.”

Warehousing

Robotics are not only producing commodities but also palletizing items for store-specific distribution and delivery, submits Motley. “Robots are moving into warehouses for supply chain distribution and getting products to market. Stacking order-specific loads onto pallets for shipment to the point of sale involves a complex set of decisions that were notoriously difficult to automate. Due to breakthroughs in software algorithms, a robot can now build a stable three-dimensional puzzle of dissimilar products of different sizes and shapes for shipment.”

Continuing, Motley postulates that building order-specific pallet loads were unfeasible until recently. “Robotic customized pallet loads are feasible and currently in production, an exciting advancement.”

Motoman’s Dean Elkins also envisions great potential for robotics in warehouse distribution applications. “I see robots used more frequently at the distribution level for mixed load palletizing. Robots load several different products onto a pallet for delivery. Controls systems and software must understand case attributes and delivery sequences of a particular load.” These attributes include weight and size of merchandise on the pallet. “The robot places light-weight products on top of heavier ones to prevent crushing. Case sizes are arranged to ensure the robot is building a stable load on the pallet.”

Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) will become progressively more important in automated warehouses, anticipates LaSelle. “I see more activity immediately adjacent to packaging and manufacturing lines, which is why Adept has invested in AGVs. Manufacturers incur a lot of cost in moving parts around within a plant. Companies use AVGs for intralogistics to increase throughput and traceability.” AGVs for bringing subassemblies to the production line represents a big growth area for robotics, maintains LaSelle.

Pushing Buttons

Robotics play a key role in quality control and the testing of consumer products prior to packaging and shipment. Baratti cites an example of robotics used to test touch screens for hand-held electronic devices. “Manufacturers use robots to test touch screens and use a peripheral device to determine the reaction of that screen. A robot loads a light-emitting diode (LED) screen into a tester to measure if the backlight is giving off the proper lumen output.”

According to Baratti, robots are also used to test car stereo systems. “The robot will measure the amount of pressure required to push stereo buttons.”

Motoman robots are also used to test consumer goods, including electronics. “Robots are used to repetitively push buttons to determine the life expectancy of electronic devices. Robots are used to load products into fixtures for testing,” describes Elkins. “Robots sweep a human-like form over fabric to look at the durability of the fabric over time.”

FANUC robots are also used to test a fabric’s longevity. “We installed a system that simulated a person getting in and out of a seat thousands of times a day to test fabric wear,” Motley says. “That application is typical of repetitive life testing, putting a product through its paces to ensure everything works as the consumer expects.”

Kenneth McLaughlin of JMP Engineering recites the value of vision-equipped robots in testing and quality control. “A robot used in conjunction with vision can check quality in every step of the manufacturing process to prevent adding value to a bad product. The vision system catches the problem early so as to not make many bad products.”

Domestic Production

Robots play an important role in keeping production at home rather than offshore. “Manufacturers face many risks of moving offshore, including delivery time and quality issues. If engineers encounter a quality issue but already have six boats on the ocean full of bad product, the problem was caught too late,” says Motley. “Robotics ensure quality, flexibility, and efficiency.”

Peter Cavallo, North America Robot Sales Manager with DENSO Robotics (Long Beach, California) has a similar take on the role of robotics in bringing manufacturing back home. “The production pipeline is five to eight months long if manufacturing is moved offshore. Engineers have difficulty making changes quickly and the substitution of materials as well as poor quality control are problems,” Cavallo remarks. “With robotics, production is local so engineers have more control over it. Robots are precise and do exactly what programed to do and changes take affect immediately.”

What’s New

Due to mercurial consumer tastes, products seem to change monthly. Robots can keep pace with this constant change, unlike hard automation. “Consumers are constantly looking for the next new thing, what is exciting. Robotics are about flexibility and change. The ability to change fits nicely with consumer product manufacturing because flexibility is what robots are all about, the ‘What’s Next’ syndrome,” concludes Peter Cavallo.

Additional coverage of robots in consumers goods can be found in this ABB consumers goods packaging case study: Quick Makeover – Packaging Hair Color Products


Pick-and-Place Applications for Robots

May 1, 2011

As seen in Robotics Online compliments of Food & Beverage Packing magazine

Pick-and-place applications comprise both primary handling—putting individual pieces of product into a tray or carton—and case packing. Advances in materials of construction, controlling software and hardware, vision systems and other aspects have made robots, of various types, an increasingly viable option for pick-and-place.

The type of robot most appropriate for a given pick-and-place application depends on the speed required, the size of the payload and other factors. For most applications, only one type of robot will be appropriate. But there are many borderline applications where more than one type could be used, and the end user (or his/her system integrator) must prioritize the factors.

One of the most significant developments in pick-and-place robotics has been improvements in servo motor design. Today’s servo motors pack more power into smaller sizes, maintaining or increasing output and payload capacity.

Another development is refinements to motion control software and hardware. Motion control is the essence of robotics. It’s needed to find objects, to guide the robot arm in picking them up and releasing them, and to coordinate with equipment upstream and down.

In the past, operating a robot would have required integration between the robot’s motion controller and the programmable logic controllers (PLCs) that coordinate the robot’s actions with the rest of the line. But the trend has been to combine those functions, as much as possible, into common controllers. This eliminates software coding that would otherwise have been required to coordinate the separate controllers.

Several kinds of robots can be used for upstream pick-and-place:

• Delta-style robots that operate from overhead with three or four long, thin arms that meet at the effector head;

• SCARA (selective compliant articulated robot arm) models, which are fixed-base robots with three vertical-axis (horizontal-motion) rotary arms; and

• Multi-axis articulated robots, which can have up to six axes, with joints that can rotate in any direction.

Choosing among these three kinds of robots depends largely on speed and payload size. (The payload includes the weight of both the product or package and the end-of-arm tooling needed to grip it.) Generally speaking, delta-style robots go twice as fast as SCARA robots, which in turn go twice as fast as six-axis articulated robots. Conversely, six-axis robots can handle the heaviest payloads, followed by SCARA robots and delta-style models.

As with most aspects of packaging, end users want pick-and-place to run as fast as possible. But some applications have practical limitations. Fragile products like baked goods have to be handled gently, which means slowing down.

Other applications have complex pattern requirements. When objects are being deposited in single layers at a time, especially when they’re relatively light, a delta robot arm can work fast. But in case packing or other applications that require extra precision, delta robots may not have the versatility to put the primary packages where they need to go. Articulated robots can work better in such applications, because they can rotate what they’re holding and also because they can pick up entire layers of primary packages and drop them into cases.

Pick-and-place applications are fertile ground for robotic equipment. As technology and other developments make such equipment increasingly viable, end users who pick the right machines will find themselves in a good place.