Robots as a future-proofing tool

02 March 2020

Today’s automated manufacturing systems need to be more agile and must incorporate greater levels of flexibility to allow manufacturers to bring new products to market more quickly. Tim Bednall explains the role that robots have to play in achieving these goals.

Traditionally, manufacturing high volume products has involved the commissioning of special purpose machinery, designed around the product and capable of producing a single or small range of variants at high speed. If the product range changes, or indeed if a completely new product is developed, these dedicated automation systems can require extensive modification, or in extreme cases the system could be scrapped. Robot systems offer the highest levels of flexibility in manufacturing processes and may hold the key to future-proofing automated systems. 

There are of course products where there is just a single variant, the design does not change, and which are manufactured in such high volumes that cam operated machine technology is required to achieve the desired output. Components such as small aerosol nozzle valves would be one example, where dedicated high-speed automation would be the most appropriate long-term solution.

There are, however, a growing number of instances where greater flexibility is required to cater for shorter product life-cycles and/or multiple variants within a product range. It is in areas such as this where the flexibility of a robot will open up a range of possibilities for automation system designers, allowing them to develop a solution which is configured in such a way that future product variants can be accommodated with little or no re-tooling. 

A host of opportunities
Robots, in their various guises, open up a host of opportunities to build in flexibility at all stages of the production process. For example, the traditional method of presenting parts to an automated assembly system was to use a series of bowl feeders.  Although a reliable solution, changing from one-part variant to another required hard tooling changes. This could be both time consuming and expensive if there were multiple part types. 

An alternative solution, developed by Wood Automation & Control for one UK manufacturer of domestic products, uses a combination of a simple bulk feeding system, a conveyor, machine vision and a robot. This solution allows the manufacturer to present any one of 27 different part variants without the need for any change part tooling. The vision system provides the robot with the position and orientation of the part allowing the robot to collect the part and present it to the assembly machine in the correct orientation. This flexible part presentation system has the capability to easily accept new or alternative part variants. In addition to the vision system generating the positional information for the robot, it also checks that the correct part variant is being presented.

Robots also have a role to play in other areas within this same assembly system by performing re-orientation operations. Depending upon variant, parts may require processing between one and three times. Robots have taken the place of traditional rotary indexing systems for this task, once again providing high levels of flexibility.

For this manufacturer, the speed and dexterity of robots work in conjunction with other dedicated assembly stations, where the parts being assembled remain common, to provide the flexibility to switch from one part type to another with no hard tooling changes and by just selecting the part type from the system HMI. 

Innovative thinking on the part of the automation design engineer, combined with the inherent flexibility and speed of today’s robot systems, can really enhance the capabilities of automated assembly systems and provide a continuing return on investment.

Tim Bednall is sales & marketing manager for Wood Automated Systems UK.

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