Investing in robotic equipment can be a big leap for a small business. Industrial robots have been automating tasks since 1961. The first industrial robot, the Unimate, worked with the die casting machines at a General Motors plant. In the last decade there has been a surge of robots being integrated into mid-sized and smaller companies. One reason is the growth and affordability of the used robot market. With the leaps made in controls technology, companies are upgrading robots before the current model has finished its life-span. However, the overall functionality of the six-axis articulated arm has not changed in the last decade. As companies consolidate and reorganiz, the factory surplus is sold.
Automation benefits include saving money and reducing production time. Automation also leads to an increase in part quality and reliability. These are some tips to help you get started implementing automation onto your factory floor.
Involve the Shop Floor Workers Consulting the workers that currently produce the part is a good starting point. This is the person who has the experience to know what works and what had not worked in the past. They often have helpful insight into the process that you can not gain by simply watching. Requesting their participation in the robotic welding project will help it be more successful. The workers who basically perform the process can provide advice on the configuration and specifications of the equipment up front, avoiding the possibility that the equipment is not as ergonomically friendly or productive as it could be. Failure to involve them disregards the insight that they have gained though experience with the process.
- Choose your Robot Operators and Robotic Programmers Carefully Most industrial robots are controlled by the use of teach pendants. Several of these pendants are now programmed with an interface that resembles a personal computer. An individual that is computer-literate will have less trouble learning how to instruct the robot and moving it to accomplish the desired tasks such as welding or material handling. For instance, the challenge of transforming a manual welding process to a robotic welding process is best handled by someone with a solid background in manual welding. This would be an ideal person to select for programming or operating the robotic welder. When choosing robot operators, programmers, and technicians, special consideration should be given to motivated employees that are willing to learn and advance their skills.
- Make Training a Priority It is important when purchasing a robot integrator to choose one that provides training on the robotic system. This allows your company to be able to fully utilize the robot and minimize later down-time due to mechanical problems. Ideally the person chosen to receive the training should be the future programmer or operator. With the proper training, the programmer should be able to reliably produce efficient and effective robot programs. Basic groundwork training is a minimum, with the real learning happening on the shop floor. Usually your robotic integrator will program your robotic system to interact with your current equipment and leave you with a turnkey solution that requires only a push of a button. It is still ideal to have trained personnel on hand should a future problem arise. Routine maintenance, such as an annual grease replenishment and battery replacement, is also an issue that you will want a trained individual to perform. Many robotic systems have been destroyed by well-meaning maintenance by individuals that do not understand the complex nature of the robotic system.
- Watch Part Fit-Up and Repeatability The most problematical issue with welding robots is part quality. Robotic systems are designed to repeat the same sequence of events. If the robot system has been damaged, repeatability can become an issue. Robotics systems sold feature a repeatability measurement and that should be taken into account along with payload and reach requirements. Used robots should be tested for accuracy and repeatability during the reclamation process. When performing properly, robotic systems are more reliable and produce parts far superior in quality than manually welded parts. Touch sensing and seam tracking can be used to compensate for weld joints that are not static, but robots are limited by the laws of physics. The use of quality equipment in conjunction with robots improves the part fit-up. Attention should be paid to lasers, welding and cutting torches, welding power supplies, raw consumables, and other variables that could lead to a loss of quality in the finished product.
Calculate Estimated ROI There has been a steady growth in the robot industry over the past decade. Experts predict that this growth trend will continue in future years. Welding robots are still the majority of the market, but many applications can be handled by robots. The general rule-of-thumb is that a robotic welder can do the work of four manual welders. Therefore when production is increasing, the choice to add robotic welders is easily justified. It will also improve efficiency, productivity, and part quality. Higher quality leads to a greater demand for your product. Improved efficiency will enable you to be more competitive in your market. The improved productivity will allow you to meet your production demands without a larger workforce.