By Zac Bogart, President of Productive Robotics
All across the country in factories large and small, collaborative robots (cobots) are sitting in unopened boxes, collecting dust instead of doing what they do best: enhancing productivity. I see this time and time again when I visit manufacturers that ask us for advice on cobot automation.
Here’s the problem: Automation engineers are busy. They’re either too short on time to set up a cobot or they quickly realize integration is more complex than anticipated. Successful integration requires more than the marketing pitch that cobots are “easy to program.” Implementation usually requires interfacing to existing equipment, choosing or designing an end-effector (gripper) for the job, and building fixturing that wasn’t necessary when an employee was doing the job. Many automation engineers aren’t familiar with these aspects of cobot implementation and get overwhelmed when asked to add them to their already demanding workload.
Here’s how to ensure you don’t waste your cobot investment:
The Cobot Is Only Part Of The Application
A cobot is only one component of the full automation cell. For the physical setup, consider where it will be located in the work area. Can you roll the cobot into the space where the employee formerly stood or must the work area first be redesigned? Once the cobot is in place, does it hamper the employee from accessing the area? This is common because work areas were designed for people with high flexibility and dexterity: much more so than a typical robot. Typical cobots (and industrial robots) have 6 joints, which makes them substantially less maneuverable than a human arm. Some cobots are now available with seven axes (or joints), which gives them maneuverability similar to a human arm. In general, more axes equals more flexibility and versatility. Cobots with seven axes can fit into tighter spaces, reach around areas, and be located off to the side of the work area. Look for a model that won’t require the workspace to be redesigned to fit both the cobot and an employee.
The next consideration is communication between the robot and the equipment with which the robot will work. If the cobot will be tending a CNC or other machine, how will it interface with that machine? An older machine may not have interface capability or require a more complicated interface. Does your in-house engineer have the knowledge or expertise to configure that interface? Would it be easier to have the cobot push the start button like an employee does rather than interfacing electrically with the machine? If so, can the cobot reach the start button?
What Role Do Integrators Play In This Process?
An integrator will definitely get the job done, but beware of a few potential pitfalls.
Not all integrators are familiar with cobots. Those who treat the project like an industrial robot can negate many of a cobot’s benefits. For example: most cobot applications, if designed correctly, do not require safety fencing, whereas most industrial robot applications do.
Then there’s the cost. Integration usually costs more — sometimes much more – than the cobot itself. Does your supplier have the expertise to help you through the integration process? Will the supplier participate in the actual integration work or are you on your own once you receive your cobot?