Going Green With Manufacturing: The Path Towards Sustainable Automation

There’s no question we’re in the midst of a climate crisis. As officials from all over the world struggle to create a plan to mitigate the effects of climate change, the causes are still points of contention. The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic paved the way for a brief but impactful decline in carbon emissions. Once the world reopened, however, it brought climate challenges back to square one. The pandemic also highlighted a stark drop in available goods due to a labor and supply shortage in which the effects are still being felt. Factory automation is a solution for the lack of labor, but how sustainable is it? At a glance, it might be easy to write off automation as energy-consuming, but this doesn’t tell the whole story.

Like most technologies, automation requires careful attention and planning to maximize its efficiency. If left unchecked, it could lead to different forms of waste. For example, in paint spraying procedures, human labor will account for a certain amount of waste. When fully autonomous robots execute that same task, the waste should be greatly reduced. If this autonomous robot is using iffy software or is poorly programmed then it could waste even more paint all while consuming large amounts of energy to complete a job in mediocre fashion

How Bad Can It Get?

The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) developed a board that listed the best- and worst-case scenarios for the environmental impacts of automation technologies. The IISD breaks down different categories of automation categories and lists the impact each sector has on the environment based on greenhouse gas emissions, resource usage, and ecosystem usage.

The worst-case scenarios here are predictable. If left unchecked, the environment could have significant adverse consequences in fields such as autonomous transport and the Internet of Things. Essentially, if resources aren’t properly managed, then it’s only normal that waste could become an issue.

Resource management is essential to the preservation of the environment. The chart predicts that in a best-case scenario, artificial intelligence – along with autonomous transportation and the Internet of Things – would have a “significant positive impact” on the environment. Again, these are purely predictions from a single source, but they aren’t unattainable. If advanced technologies, like nuclear fusion, can advance to a point of universal adoption, then these predictions will be closer to reality.

Figure 1. Showing a best- and worst-case scenario of greenhouse gas emissions, resource use, and ecosystem use for various sectors where autonomous systems can be implemented (via Dusik et al.)

Manufacturing and Its Impact On the Environment

In an article published by Al Jazeera in 2021, they state that “manufacturing – especially of the cheap construction staples steel and cement – accounts for about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions.” In the United States, manufacturing processes consist of 25% of the country’s energy use. Manual methods of manufacturing are quickly becoming archaic and will require an overhaul towards automation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Inefficient technology is one factor behind the world’s overconsumption of technology. In 2013, a report published by the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that the world’s 14 billion online electronic devices had wasted around $80 billion every year. Though the IEA lacks an update nearly a decade later, it’s fair to assume that this number hasn’t gotten any better.

New technologies are hoping to make energy consumption all the more sustainable with different parties advocating for different methods such as solar-powered electronics and the aforementioned nuclear fusion. Neither of these forms of energy is ready for widespread use – in fact, nuclear fusion is still very much in its infancy – but that doesn’t mean advances in other sectors won’t help mitigate the effects of climate change.

Figure 2. Coal- and oil-based electricity generation cause the most greenhouse gas emissions while hydro, wind, and nuclear all have minimal impact (via Let’s Talk Science 2020).

What the Research Says

A research paper titled “A global horizon scan of the future impacts of robotics and autonomous systems on urban ecosystems,” written by a number of authors including Mark A. Goddard and Zoe G. Davis, detailed how exactly a robotic autonomous system (RAS) could affect the environment down the line. While they touch upon the ecological benefits of factory automation – more on that later – they also specified how automation could benefit entire cities and ecosystems.

In short, automation could lead to better use of land, especially in dense cities, like Dubai, which could lead to less space being used for transport infrastructure. They predict that if automation becomes widespread, then fewer people will need cars, paving the way for reduced roads, car parks, and driveways. They add that automation in buildings could regulate energy consumption and reduce heat loss.

With these services becoming more eco-friendly, “RAS will reduce human-nature interactions by, for example, reducing the need to leave the house as services are automated and decreasing awareness of the surrounding environment while travelling.”

While the research goes far more in depth about topics such as managing invasive species and biodiversity, it’s clear that, if properly implemented, RAS could be a game-changing service provided to the world.

These long-reaching effects are not just for cities and communities, they will also immensely benefit manufacturers who will be able to both augment productivity and reduce their carbon footprint.

Considering a sustainable factory will not only benefit the environment, but will benefit your savings in the long run

How Sustainable is Automation Really?

The world of automation is vast. There are many different ways an autonomous system can help the environment. Robots can be programmed in empty fields to plant trees. Self-driving electric cars will one day be commonplace, not only eliminating the need for gas refuels but also greatly reducing noise pollution as cars will be mostly silent and obnoxious honking from irritated drivers. While these are more day-to-day and simpler options, enabling autonomous robotic systems in manufacturing plants can also go a long way toward reducing their carbon footprint. Here are some examples of how automation can contribute to the fight against climate change:

Reduced Energy Consumption: Fewer humans in the factory means you can downsize and use less space in the factory. With less space means heating and air conditioning costs will decrease. As well, autonomous robots will take less time to complete a task, therefore using less energy.

Reduced Waste: With human labor, it’s normal to expect waste when performing certain tasks like paint spraying or powder coating. A fully autonomous robot will know exactly how much of each resource to use, minimizing waste. It will also reduce reworks, touch-ups, and complete revisions.

A reduction in both energy consumption and waste will not only benefit the manufacturers’ costs but will also contribute to a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, eventually minimizing a factory’s carbon footprint. As well, if new forms of energy, like nuclear fusion, become usable, then it will improve a factory’s level of sustainability as well.

Figure 3. Greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from industry make up for nearly a quarter of the U.S.’s total GHGs in 2020, signifying an urgency to move towards sustainable forms of energy. (Via EPA)

Getting There: The Road to Sustainable Manufacturing

The world is slowly but surely taking steps to ensure our collective carbon footprint declines. With autonomous robotics systems, manufacturers can directly contribute to that. While it might not be the sole reason manufacturers will switch to a fully autonomous robotics system, they can find some solace in knowing that adopting these systems won’t only be beneficial to their company, but to future generations who depend on the Earth’s wellbeing.

 

With AutonomyOS™ and AutonomyStudio™, you can move towards a fully autonomous robotics system that is as practical as it is ecological. Using 3D Perception with AI-based Task Planning and Motion Planning, manufacturing engineers and integrators can configure autonomous robotic systems for value-added processes that allow manufacturers to achieve more consistency and flexibility in production than ever before. Contact us to learn more

ROS: How Well Does it Address Manufacturers’ Needs?

The first time you see a robot perform a specific action, it can be quite awe-inspiring. Seeing robots like the Personal Robot 2 (PR2) clean tables and fetch drinks is certainly a sign that the future is now. Though the concept of having a robot understand what it needs to do is fascinating, how does it actually know what to do and how to do it?

There isn’t a universal answer to this. Robots have, for the longest time, been able to simplify some elements of programming thanks to robotics middleware such as Urbi, OpenRDK, and ROS. Though these platforms all offer different advantages and limitations, ROS stands out from the crowd thanks to one thing: its open-source nature. ROS’s repository is free to access, meaning that anyone who’s interested in programming robots can start with this middleware for free.

How ROS Came To Life

The Robot Operating System, more commonly known as ROS, started as a project at Stanford University by Keenan Wyrobek and Eric Berger. During the time in grad school, the duo had noticed their peers were wasting way too much time trying to program robots – Wyrobek even heard people say they had spent four years trying to make a robot work with no success – and decided to create a universal, open-source platform that would allow developers to share their knowledge.

“People who are good at one part of the robotics stack are usually crippled by another[…]” said Berger in an interview for IEEE Spectrum. “Your task planning is good, but you don’t know anything about vision; your hardware is decent, but you don’t know anything about software. So we set out to make something that didn’t suck, in all of those different dimensions. Something that was a decent place to build on top of.”

 
Since 2018, robot installation numbers have fluctuated namely due to the pandemic causing significant changes to the labor market. Graph via IFR.

In a separate guest editorial by Wyrobek for IEEE Spectrum, he specified that he had seen developers spend 90% of their time re-writing other people’s codes, with the other 10% allocated to innovating. Afterward, Wyrobek found donors to help fund the building of 10 robots and shipped them off to 10 different universities in order to have teams of software engineers build developer tools that would allow other developers to innovate and build on the software. Essentially, Wyrobek was tired of seeing developers attempt to reinvent the wheel each time, so he and Berger wanted to simplify everyone’s lives.

How You Can and Can’t Use ROS

On its own, ROS can’t really do much. There are vast libraries of packages included in the ROS repositories, but ROS itself only provides the canvas on which developers can program and execute their desired tasks.

Using ROS, developers can build the three main components of a robot: the actuators, sensors, and control systems. These components are then unified with ROS tools, namely topics and messages. The messages are used to plan the robot’s movement and, using a digital twin, developers can ensure that their code works without having to actually test it on a real robot.

These messages can travel throughout ROS using nodes, which is essentially an executable file within a ROS package. Each node is registered to the ROS Master, which sets up node-to-node communication. All this technical information to say that programming is an essential part of ROS. Developers and programmers have to code each action they want the robot to perform. Without ROS, this would be a daunting task, since developers always tend to reinvent the wheel. With ROS, however, this is a much simpler task thanks to its open-source nature.

ROS allows developers to simplify the job by using nodes to register requests to the robot and how exactly it will respond to them.

ROS succeeds in providing a canvas for its developers due to its large community size. While other robotics middleware, like URBI, aim to solve the same problems, there was one key difference in their success. URBI was an expensive software to license, and while developers still used it, it failed to build a community similar to ROS’. With a large community comes more tools for developers to share. Consequently, more projects could be pushed to completion in record time. 

In fact, the robotics middleware has become so widespread that, as per Bloomberg’s reporting in 2019, 55% of robots shipped by 2024, over 915,000 units will “will have at least one ROS package installed, creating a large installed base of ROS-enabled robots.”

Additionally, Lian Jye Sue, Principal Analyst of ABI Research claimed that “the success of ROS is due to its wide range of interoperability and compatibility with other open-source projects.” The more ROS expands through community-based packages, the more adoption rates for ROS will climb in the future.

ROS’ free entry point allowed developers from anywhere in the world to start tinkering with different projects and upload them to ROS’ repositories whenever they feel comfortable with its status or if another developer wants to take a chance and try to improve upon it.

A look at ROS' user interface running on a UBUNTU system (Image via ROSIndustrial)

The Limitations of ROS

When things are free, they tend to have some serious trade-offs. For a project with the breadth and depth of ROS, it’s understandable that it has its limitations. Developers aren’t paid when they upload their packages on ROS’ repositories, nor are they compensated for keeping them updated. Updates to the ROS platform are done regularly, but they rarely, if ever, increase the range of tasks it can accomplish. As stated earlier, open-source middleware like ROS is built to help, not reinvent the wheel.

While ROS can do a lot, its limitations can severely affect a company trying to think outside the box or simply trying to narrow down the effectiveness of its product. One of the main downsides of ROS is the potential lack of updates for certain packages. If a certain company has been working on a package but the project for which the package was made is nearing its conclusion, then updates afterward will become scarce or non-existent. The packages are left to die and can become obsolete quickly. If other developers are using these packages, then their product might suffer if bugs arise with no one to patch them.

Another area in which ROS suffers is its lack of compatibility with computer operating systems – it only works on Ubuntu. (Its successor, however, works on Windows and Mac as well but ROS 2 is far from a finished product and doesn’t offer the same consistency as ROS.) Ubuntu is not a hard real-time operating system, which means ROS could become obsolete quickly depending on industrial robotics needs. As the middleware uses more power and space, there’s no guarantee of real-time control.

Finally, ROS lacks support for micro-controllers and embedded chips – it has to run on a computer. The only real alternative for this is to run ROS on Raspberry Pi (and similar type) boards.

Though the number of flaws and limitations of ROS isn’t necessarily high, they are impactful. Still, if a company has a more narrow and focused idea of what needs to be done, then they should be mindful of these caveats. A platform like ROS was never meant to please everybody, but for a company with simple goals or for a student trying to acclimate themselves to the world of robotics, ROS can provide a solution.

Who Uses ROS?

According to ROS’ website, hundreds of companies, from startups to Fortune 500 enterprises, have downloaded over 500,000 different ROS packages for use on their projects. One Canadian company, in particular, succeeded in using ROS to develop their robots. Clearpath Robotics, founded in 2009, develops several robots based on ROS and are programmable using ROS right out of the box.

One of their most popular ROS-powered robots is the Jackal, an unmanned ground vehicle that can autonomously drive itself around a multitude of different terrains. It’s an entry-level robot, but one of the most widely used ROS-powered vehicles at the moment. With over a decade of success and usability with ROS, Clearpath Robotics is even making the switch to ROS’s successor, ROS 2, which aims to fix all of ROS’ limitations. 

 
Clearpath Robotics uses ROS and ROS2 to ensure that their deployed robots continue to develop and execute complex processes.

But it’s not just Clearpath Robotics using ROS, companies like Fetch Robotics and TurtleBot use the middleware to fill their different needs. Where the former focuses on developing robots designed for warehousing, the latter develops inexpensive, personal robot kits made more for enthusiasts and researchers, rather than whole solutions for a given industry. 

The versatility of ROS can benefit a myriad of different companies in different industries, but it’s not quite the world-changing plug-and-play solution it aims to be.

No matter how a robotic system is configured, most often an HMI will be required to make it easy for operators to manage - ROS doesn't necessarily make that process easy, however.

Enter the World of AutonomyOS

In contrast to the open-source middleware that is ROS, there exist a plethora of proprietary platforms designed for more specific uses. Omnirobotic’s AutonomyOS™ is a middleware meant to simplify and widen how robots are being used. While they both aim to achieve similar results, AutonomyOS™ flips the script by removing the need to code – something that still drives ROS.

By removing the lengthy coding process, AutonomyOS™ allows better resource allocation. Gone are the days of spending countless hours trying to find the perfect code to make the robots execute the desired tasks. The logical question to ask after reading this is “How does it work if no one is required to program it?”

Before the robot executes its actions, it needs to know what object it will be working on first. In order to analyze the object, it must first pass through a set of 3D perception cameras that will digitally reconstruct it and make it visible with AutonomyStudio™, the integrated development environment that allows for the configuration of a system in a virtual space. Though 3D perception can be costly, Omnirobotic enables integrators to deploy 3D cameras using HDR-enhanced sensor fusion, effectively eliminating the need to adjust camera parameters.

With AutonomyOS™, setting up the behaviors of the robot is essential to executing a task. That means no more wasted time on programming movements.

Once the reconstruction is complete, that’s when AutonomyOS™ shines the most. AutonomyOS™ includes a built-in task planner that can interpret any process model and can plan the desired motion to execute the tasks at hand. Using HTN planning, scenario exploration, and behavioral patterns that the end-user can design themselves, AutonomyOS™ can convert the specifics of the object’s part positions and overall geometry into usable toolpaths.

When the toolpaths are ready, AutonomyOS™ can then generate a proper motion for the robot to execute the necessary actions. Several elements are considered when planning out the proper motion, such as managing collidable spaces, avoiding singularities and joint pressure, and streaming motion through a robot controller for real-time production workflows.

Where ROS Can't Compete

AutonomyOS™ can be primarily used by High-Mix manufacturers for a variety of different applications like paint spray processes, welding, and sanding. What is “High-Mix” Manufacturing? It is generally defined as any manufacturer or production that processes more than 100 different SKUs in batches fewer than 1000 each year – basically, a lot more variation than mass manufacturing.

For AutonomyOS™ to analyze and understand the task it needs to execute, it just goes through the steps listed in the previous section and, well, does what it needs to. ROS, on the other hand, would have to be programmed to understand the shapes and technicalities of each piece it needs to work on.

With a good set of behaviors, AutonomyOS™ can execute a large number of functions

Let’s say a factory needs to paint over a batch of items – say stools, desks, and drawers. Let’s also presume that there are at least 5 different models of each item. If you use ROS to get a robot to paint over them, then you’d be required to program the robot to understand the shapes and sizes of each item, as well as to go after odd forms and intricate spaces to maximize the surface area onto which the robot is painting.

AutonomyOS™, though, will execute these tasks after having analyzed the items with its 3D perception cameras. Then, using AutonomyStudio™, the end-user can set up the appropriate behaviors to ensure that programs will be properly executed – and this before the robot has even begun moving.

All Good Things Have A Cost

ROS has its fair share of uses. Without repeating what was listed above, it’s clear that, up until a certain point ROS can help develop automated systems. Who it helps is more important than how it helps however. Its limitations are succinctly explained above, but it can be especially useful for a company with limited resources and funding to get their feet wet with automation. Given its free entry point, ROS is more of a learning software than a software that can solve a plethora of manufacturing problems.

AutonomyOS™ doesn’t share the low-cost entry point but its uses far exceed that of ROS. As well, unlike ROS packages, AutonomyOS™ won’t become obsolete because a developer has stopped working on their project. AutonomyOS™ has a monthly subscription fee but with that comes a platform that continues to grow, enabling support for more machines and robotic systems far into the future.

ROS vs. AutonomyOS™: A Uneven Battle

AutonomyOS™ expands the scope of what a robotics software can do for manufacturers. That doesn’t mean ROS is bad, it just means that, as free middleware, it limits itself given that there are no developers paid to create new packages. It’s a community-driven project that, even with constant updates, can’t revolutionize the robotics industry. AutonomyOS™ is more advanced in nature, but is also for those who are ready for full robot automation in their factories.

With AutonomyOS™ and AutonomyStudio™, it’s never been easier to deploy an autonomous robotic system. Using 3D Perception with AI-based Task Planning and Motion Planning, manufacturing engineers and integrators can configure autonomous robotic systems for value-added processes that allow manufacturers to achieve more consistency and flexibility in production than ever before. Contact us to learn more!

Are You Really Ready For Factory Automation?

As automation begins to saturate the manufacturing industry, it’s become increasingly clear that it holds several benefits over traditional human labor. These benefits are no secret either – countless publications and businesses have posted articles over the years explicitly detailing the advantages of factory automation. Though it’s clear that the pros outweigh the cons, automation isn’t necessarily a plug-and-play solution. 

There are several factors that will impact whether or not you should lean into factory automation. These factors include whether existing technology can actually help you automate your targeted process, what kind of flexible automation solutions are already available, or where you can find inspiration from unique forms of automation that may in fact help improve your own application or targeted project. 

Like any major business decision, it’s important to weigh these factors to make sure that automation will better serve your business and if taking the first steps is feasible in the near future.

What Can and Needs to be Automated

Firstly, it’s important to ask yourself what process you want to automate. Naturally, not all automation processes are simple turnkey solutions. Decades ago when automation began to be broadly incorporated in the automotive industry, the nature of automation was different. The robots had a planned programmed set of paths and moves to make in order to repeat the same task over and over again.

Cars don’t change components suddenly, therefore the automation is – relative to other industries – simple. Though the automotive industry largely benefits from automation, they only represent a sliver of all manufacturing and not every sector can benefit from automation in the same way.

Automation for High-Mix manufacturing environments doesn’t necessarily work the same way as it would in the automotive industry. Certain processes can’t be executed by doing the exact same task over and over again. Some processes, such as powder coating, paint spraying or welding, require some planning to automate with each and every cycle.

What is “High-Mix” Manufacturing? It is generally defined as any manufacturer or production that processes more than 100 different SKUs in batches fewer than 1000 each year – basically, a lot more variation than mass manufacturing.

For example, let’s say you manufacture tables, but your existing paint process is slow and produces a lot of waste and rework. In traditional automation, if your tables are all the same, you could use a robot. If your tables vary in size, shape or other factors, then you would need the right software and peripherals to manage that variation and still improve upon your existing process. Put simply: if you have no variation, you’re probably already using robots and other forms of automation. If you have a lot of variation, it’s possible to automate, but new solutions must be considered.

Robots and automated machines aren’t the only factory automation solutions available today – resourceful manufacturers can find plenty of software and equipment to support more flexible systems.

Can I Even Automate My High-Mix Production?

When considering factory automation, which is a necessity today, many High-Mix manufacturers are losing hope. Maybe you’ve tried to install a new machine or a robot but the part variation you see has always led vendors to tell you “automation isn’t for you”.

For the longest time, that has been true. Most manufacturers have a level of part variation that qualifies as “High-Mix”. If you make something in metal, wood, plastic or other discrete end-use materials, it’s most likely that traditional automation is too rigid and specific for the amount of change and variation in structure that your plant sees.

If you’ve always been told “no” by automation vendors, robot manufacturers, or the typical automation provider who simply doesn’t believe that it’s possible to automate your production processes, then fret not – there may be another way! Today, manufacturers can actually deploy flexible automation or even autonomous systems that can adapt to the actual variation in your production – or at least be easily trained to change when change emerges. After all, as a High-Mix manufacturer, change truly is the only constant.

In High-Mix environments, not everything will be the same, so you may be curious as to how the technology works. With technologies like AutonomyOS, it becomes easier to envision a shift to automation – even in High-Mix.

A Brief Historical Analysis of Flexible Automation

Before jumping into the technical aspects of automation, it’s worth noting how manufacturers grew to adopt automation.

In 2003, engineers Francesco Jovane, Yehuda Koren, and C.R. Boër, conducted a study outlining the progressing needs in manufacturing for flexible automation. Granted this study is nearly 20 years old, but the findings in this academic essay still ring true despite substantial technological advancement since.

Going back to the 1960s, shoe manufacturers shifted from fully manual labor to machine-aided labor. In the 1990s, society’s desire for custom shoes increased leading European manufacturers to push for an increased presence of automation. Customization became so popular that these consumer wants “became the centre of research activities in the footwear sector.” In fact, a flexible automated pilot plant for mass customized shoes was installed in Italy as part of the Italian National Program for Innovative Production Systems. While this was obviously an early attempt at flexible automation in manufacturing, its success meant that more innovation would have to come from larger projects adopting this style of manufacturing.

Later in the study, Koren and Boër explain a survey that accounted for several manufacturers across the United States and Europe, though they are not named. The manufacturers in question had already implemented a form of flexible automation and were asked about its type, their experience with the system, and the most relevant future directions of development.

They noted in their findings a split between those who had benefited from flexible automation and those who didn’t. However, raw statistics don’t tell the whole story. Those who didn’t benefit from automation were found to have not understood the implementation and use of the systems properly. The two writers specify that “the users who were more careful in the analysis of drivers-enablers were the most satisfied with the Flexible Manufacturing Systems.”

In short, as flexible manufacturing became more commonplace in the early 2000s, manufacturers were found to benefit from it with the caveat that they understand how their systems work and how to take full advantage of it. With that being said, it’s important to understand what needs to be automated in your manufacturing plant.

Productivity Isn't What It Used Be

When deciding for or against factory automation, it’s important to ask yourself how your business is tackling the shifts in productivity that have beset the manufacturing industry. One of the most common pain points within the industry is the recent exodus of employees towards different industries. With a startling lack of youth entering the manufacturing industry, the majority of current employees consists of those either nearing retirement or those in too deep to change directions. 

Without new employees to take the mantle as older employees retire, there will be a lack of knowledge transfer to the few younger workers entering the workforce. There won’t be any older mentors willing to teach the younger generation the tips and tricks of the trade.

Moreover, the older generation’s productivity will begin to lag as they age. Normally, this would be balanced out by the younger generation’s eagerness to work, but due to the lack of mentorship from the veterans to the rookies, their productivity is stagnating as well. The result of that is an increase in bottlenecks in the production lines.

Even if your business has suffered minimally from this phenomenon, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily out of the picture in 10 or 20 years. Take a look at the age ranges of your employees. Even if the majority of them are in their 40s, but younger ones remain scarce, the productivity decline is inevitable.

If you’ve noticed – or even just begun to notice – these trends in your business, it may be worthwhile to take a step back and evaluate the future of productivity within your manufacturing business. Planning for automation doesn’t take a couple of days. It can be a lengthy process and as time continues, productivity led by humans may take a dip, which will further necessitate automation.

When automating your factory, there will be a learning curve and an adjustment period that may seem daunting. Even when recruited at a lesser rate, new employees won’t have as arduous jobs. Though you would still require them to operate the robots and their accompanying software, the burden of repetitive tasks will be lifted off of their shoulders. Moreover, morale could see a lift as employees won’t necessarily be burnt out by the end of the day.

If you’re starting to see the writings on the wall, it certainly would not hurt to take a look at automation options.

How Some Rise to the Challenge

Of course, several companies have already taken the plunge toward flexible automation and have already seen success with its implementation. Fizyr, a computer vision company located in Delft, noticed the supply chain disruption during the pandemic and developed a platform that would allow robots to autonomously take on tasks such as item picking, palletizing, truck unloading, and more.

Fizyr as a company doesn’t build or program the robots. However, it does assist in their automation tasks with their software that they describe as plug-and-play. Essentially, the vision software, using 3D cameras, allows robots to perceive the different sizes of the packages needing to be moved. With the variation in sizes in mind, the software would then relay the information to the robot which would then know what method of grasping it should use to make sure the items are being handled with care.

Given that not all boxes are made equally, Fizyr’s platform facilitates some of the longest and most mundane processes by allowing the robots to handle the heavy work. And this isn’t just a case of having a robot perform the same actions on a fixed schedule every day – with different sizes for each box it’s scanning, it’s processing the best method possible.

Based on Fizyr’s success, it’s not impossible to envision a future where your warehouse has automated a portion of your daily tasks. Whether it’s fixed, flexible, or fully autonomous, there’s a solution for your automation needs.

Being Ready For the Cost of Factory Automation

If you’re looking for efficient factory automation, it’s probably because you intend on saving more money over a long period of time. Replacing skilled manual labor with autonomous robots will guarantee that, however installing them and pairing them with the right software will still come at a cost.

Naturally, buying or renting a robot isn’t always cheap. Typically, automated robots vary in price depending on their model, release date, and capabilities. Prices can start at around $25,000 for used models but that’s only for the robot itself. The accompanying software and integration are an added cost that can also fluctuate depending on the provider of the software. Though these prices aren’t set in stone, they aren’t particularly inexpensive either. 

These costs may seem daunting at first, but it becomes easier to rationalize them when you consider that the robots won’t need salary increases, health benefits, or any other recurring monetary investment that human labor would require.

Think of it this way: you’re investing in your future. That doesn’t always come cheap, but the saying “You have to spend money to make money” has never been more true.

Understanding Limitations of Factory Automation

Factory automation is still very much in its early stages and not every robot and software is ready to take on the world (yet). In order to fully embrace the automation you want, you will need to understand what you can and can’t do within the product’s limitations. Being ambitious is always a positive, but setting the right expectations can set the stage for more future success.

Just because automation has certain limitations today doesn’t mean these same limitations will be there tomorrow. As the technology advances exponentially yearly, most of these restraints will eventually be lifted.

Let’s go back to our table manufacturing example. Say these tables are wooden and need to be sanded down but the technology isn’t quite perfect yet, you can still use the paint spray processes to start and eventually finish with sanding down the line once the technology is ready. Don’t let automation’s initial limitations blindside you about its potential.

With autonomous robots, you'll be able to take a step back and watch the robots do the hard work, giving you more time to focus on other priorities.

Consider Alternatives If You Don't Automate

Factory automation requires you to take a leap of faith into a new world, which can understandably be unsettling – that’s how change usually is. However, it’s worth noting the long-term effects of not going down the automation path. 

As the labor force in manufacturing continues to decline, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find replacements for those exiting the workforce due to retirement, among other reasons. You will either have to outsource the labor, where quality will surely take a hit, or pay incoming employees a substantially higher wage than those who preceded them. 

If you opt to continue operations as is without any change, your output could also suffer as a result. With fewer employees – or less skilled employees – output will naturally take a hit. 

What’s important to understand is automating your business doesn’t happen overnight. From the initial decision to automating all the way to getting this project online, it could take two or three years. If done properly, the benefits of automation can be realized over 20 years or more. As the technology advances, so will your business. Every passing day means problems are solved and benefits are gained.

These automation solutions naturally go much deeper than simply planning and executing a task. Sure, the robots will need some maintenance and upgrades over time, but none of these costs will fluctuate the same way costs for human labor will. Over the years, automation will save you on labor costs, sick days from employees, overtime pay and much more. As well, if their productivity can easily eclipse that of a person, then automation will easily pay itself off within a timespan much shorter than the full life of a system.

Automation isn’t a one-stop shop to solve all your manufacturing problems right away. You will need patience, proper foresight, and specific planning. If you have all three of these components and the willingness to try new things, then you will see the benefits of automation sooner rather than later.

With AutonomyOS™ and AutonomyStudio™, it’s never been easier to deploy an autonomous robotic system. Using 3D Perception with AI-based Task Planning and Motion Planning, manufacturing engineers and integrators can configure autonomous robotic systems for value-added processes that allow manufacturers to achieve more consistency and flexibility in production than ever before. Contact us to learn more!

Why Autonomous Paint Robots Are Your Most Versatile Choice for Paint Automation

Paint automation is a fickle beast — too much spray and you get drip, too little spray or too slow and you can get dry spray, inconsistencies, and rejections that require you to execute the whole process over again.

While powder coating and other spray media can be more forgiving in actual application, the capacity to automate today is almost as difficult. Automated powder coating booths with reciprocating arms and varied production lots offer a variety of creative approaches to successful coating automation, but they have clear limits around the shape, size, position, and detail required on each and every part.

In place of what’s most commonly available today, autonomous paint robots allow you to adapt to the varied needs of your production environment — whether in aerospace, heavy equipment, metal fabrication, or more — and instead of bumping up on the limits of automation, empower their workforce to do more. 

Autonomous Paint Robots Let You Work in a High-Mix Environment

Autonomous paint robots aren’t like traditional robots – they don’t require precision fixturing, jigging, or elaborate programming.

How is this possible? Autonomous robots can either use live 3D Perception technology or a CAD file injected into a Digital Twin to locate and understand the shape and position of parts. From there, their intelligence can help automate the robot programming in real-time, which means the robot paints what it sees — and it can do it according to your actual instructions!

This intelligence doesn’t come easy, however. Omnirobotic’s AutonomyOS™ is the only integration method that allows autonomous robots to function in real-time for value-added spray processes. 

This technology is, at its heart, powered by Omnirobotic’s autonomous robotics platform. This platform allows manufacturers, integrators, and almost anybody to build and deploy autonomous robotic systems no matter what they want to throw at it, meaning that when you start working with autonomous paint robots, you can take the lessons you learn (and the benefits!) to other parts of your factory floor!

Autonomous Paint Robots Enable Significant Quality Improvements

With autonomous paint robots, you finally have access to robots without the pains of programming, jigging, and more. Robots can function almost exactly like skilled laborers would, except while retaining the improved quality, consistency, and productivity that robots are already known for. 

Why is this the case? Robots programmed algorithmically will always follow the same principles, while manual programming introduces its own form of human error. While artfulness is the benefit of human ingenuity, you shouldn’t expect everybody to be comfortable working 8-hour shifts on a paint line day-in and day-out — especially if you expect every piece to be perfect. 

In place of dull, tedious, and tiresome jobs, your skilled workers — already in short supply — can be moved to different parts of your facility where they have more capacity to design, create and validate the work that autonomous robots are doing. The quality comes with the territory, but the quality of life is what you’ll notice most!

Autonomy Can Reduce Rework, Waste, and Overspray

While the benefits of autonomous robots over a thinning skilled workforce are multiple, the add-ons truly allow the overall payback of the systems and cost savings to become comprehensive. 

First, the quality and consistency improvements that come with autonomous robots enable one benefit above all: reduced rework, waste, and rejections of parts.

This is often the most costly aspect of any production line because of the amount of coordination, energy, and attention to detail it requires. While rework can compose 5 or 10% of a production’s volume, the need to touch up or completely redo parts can make up to 20 or 30% of your regular operating expenses.

At the same time, overspray is another quality issue that comes with a “hidden waste” of coatings. Each coating — whether paint or powder — has very specific requirements that mean any coating over the necessary thickness is effectively waste.

For instance, in traditional powder coating, an operation can often leave up to 30 to 50% excess coating on targeted parts. This excess thickness is effectively waste. For a medium-sized powder coating shop (2 lines with 2 shifts), reducing this coating excess by half can save $1 million per year or more. 

With these side benefits, operational expenses don’t just go down, but the rate of payback for robotic deployment accelerates rapidly.

Paint Shop Automation Has Never Been More Accessible

Robotics has dominated automotive and consumer electronics manufacturing for decades, but that is only about 20% of manufacturing in North America. While other manufacturing sectors struggle with reliable, flexible automation systems, autonomous robots for value-added processes represent a game-changer for any manufacturer looking to automate efficiently.

We call this the “Autonomous Manufacturing Future”, but there’s no reason you can’t start with it today. Contact us with your spray process, its requirements, or with ideas on what project you want to build using our autonomous robotics engine and we can help you get started!

With AutonomyOS™ and AutonomyStudio™, it’s never been easier to deploy an autonomous robotic system. Using 3D Perception with AI-based Task Planning and Motion Planning, manufacturing engineers and integrators can configure autonomous robotic systems for value-added processes that allow manufacturers to achieve more consistency and flexibility in production than ever before.

Spray Process Automation Buyer’s Guide

There are a variety of different spray process automation needs, focused primarily on what approach you need to take. In order to determine your needs, you must consider the following:

  • How much volume or how many shifts are required
  • Is there a high detail or high throughput workflow that is called for
  • Is automation necessary due to local conditions, safety, or lack of skills
  • Do you have a large variation in parts or significant variation over 10-20 years

Most systems are purchased with at least a 10+ year timeline in mind. This is because of the extensive construction and equipment required for startup. In order for any spray system to pay off, it must be rationalized on a multi-year approach, where operating expenses can be used to balance against the total capital expense cost of equipment.

As such, there are a handful of methods you can use to automate spray processes. If you already have your production needs in mind, keep an eye out for what system might work below.

Single-Arm Batch Booths

If your spray process involves abrasive media or other particular “dirty” and uncomfortable systems — or simply highly sticky media and hot temperatures — a single-robot arm batch booth (two robots will also do) can be the best way to address your automation needs. 

Typically, a robotic system will only address parts adequately if they are pre-programmed, whether manually, offline, with a teach pendant, hand guiding, or other simple means. In a batch booth situation with an abrasive, low-precision process, this can be entirely useful to a manufacturer.

In situations where high precision is needed and programming and jigging can’t be generated for each and every part, autonomous systems that automate robot programming and positioning may be a better choice in these circumstances. 

Automated Coating Booths

For parts that have simple convex shapes, limited variation, and must be sprayed or coated in high volume, automated coating booths with reciprocating arms can be used to essentially “blanket” the target part in coatings or media. 

Obviously, this can create some waste, but if a “reclaim” powder booth is used with limited color variation (to prevent contamination), then this waste is minimized. In these cases, most of the waste will actually come from the overcoat on the target part. Most parts will be accepted by a customer or final assembler with a minimal thickness applied, which means overcoat is rarely necessary unless it is specifically requested. 

The exception is that these systems can typically start at a cost of $1 million or more, which means high volume and low variation are absolutely essential to justify costs. 

Conveyor Belt and Dispensing Systems

Conveyor-based systems with various dispensing mechanisms can satisfy fine or high-precision spray and lubrication processes. These processes are typically found in mass production processes like consumer goods and electronics, but choosing the right system is essential given the volume of coatings that is ultimately applied.

Nordson, Graco and Sames Kremlin are among some of the best providers of these kinds of technologies and machines, and unless cleanroom manufacturing is required, costs can be fairly low. 

Continuous Robotic Automation

With an overhead conveyor, whether stop and go or continuous, but a high degree of part variation, an autonomous robotic system is the only choice. If you are choosing racks or jigs that are repeatable and predictable, programming robots may be possible (e.g. less than 10 new parts or SKUs per year).

A two robot setup will be cost-competitive with the cheapest automated coating booths, whereas conveyor construction can be expensive for a full facility but is obviously useful in a variety of applications as needed.

If you really want to think about spray process automation for the long term, contact us to learn more.

With AutonomyOS™ and AutonomyStudio™, it’s never been easier to deploy an autonomous robotic system. Using 3D Perception with AI-based Task Planning and Motion Planning, manufacturing engineers and integrators can configure autonomous robotic systems for value-added processes that allow manufacturers to achieve more consistency and flexibility in production than ever before. 

Optimizing Transfer Efficiency With a Robotic Cell

Industrial-scale operations require industrial-scale solutions. One of these comes with powder and other forms of coating where transfer efficiency is key.

Transfer efficiency is usually defined as a ratio between coating material that sticks to an object vs the total weight of coating used in a process interval. This is generally expressed as a percentage. For example, if only half the coating makes it onto the part being processed, that could be considered a transfer efficiency of 50%. The more that makes it onto the part, the higher that percentage.

Where Transfer Efficiency Is Important

For a few reasons, powder coating transfer efficiency may not need to be particularly high. Some powder coating booths allow for the recovery of material, although color changes can lead to contamination that ultimately compromises the whole endeavor of material recovery.

This is where the challenge becomes impactful. For even an average powder coating shop, spending $1 million or more per year on powder is not uncommon. If within this expense, 50% or more of the material is wasted, this can be incredibly burdensome for a small or medium-sized business. 

When we consider larger shops which may be running 2 or 3 shifts on multiple lines, 6 or even 7 days per week throughout the year — these enterprise-grade production environments can be spending tens of millions or more coating complex part shapes where faraday caging and unique targeting challenges make powder waste a huge cost. Often the biggest cost in powder is simply in finding enough skilled labor to get enough material on the part. 

What Is a Good Transfer Efficiency

Good transfer efficiency is generally considered to be 65% and up. This is because of a few things, including the need to overspray faraday caging areas in order to ensure that sufficient coating can adhere to the part. Generally, powder as a material can be a little cheaper than paint — particularly specialized industrial paints — so those using powder coating in manufacturing are able to spray more liberally and less accurately than they might for conventional paint.

That being said, high transfer efficiency is always more desirable in the sense that more powder on target is better. The challenge again becomes that if too much powder is deposited on the target parts, then money is wasted for every pound of powder that is in excess of what is required by the customer or the overall production process. 

Transfer efficiency overall can be improved by increasing voltage or improving the grounding of your operation as well as overall design or “batch run” improvements that optimize how your coating process works according to the shape of your parts, but these specific improvements can vary according to the specifics of a certain production. For more on how to improve the fundamentals of your powder coating booth, the Powder Coating Institute can be one of the best resources out there!

How Is Powder Coating Done Today

Powder coating is done today through two primary means: handheld, pressure pot-driven systems and automated booths utilizing overhead conveyors, reciprocating arms and quick color change or rapid recovery additions.

For manual coating, the process can be challenging in that workers must wear protective equipment since inhaling powder coating is essentially toxic, while said equipment can also reduce the desirability or accuracy in doing a manual powder coating job. Secondly, the equipment used has to be safe within the bounds of human presence and then essentially relies on lower pressure and volume of coating with a higher need to rest over trouble spots or faraday cages.

When it comes to automated systems, higher volume and broader distribution of coatings are achievable through automated arms that have a consistent 24/7 output. Maintenance on these systems is minimal, but accuracy according to uniquely-shaped parts or parts with varied cavities can be a challenge. In this context, many vendors still provide systems with light screens or other vision components that can overcome the limitations of some part nuances, and while these can work within specific scopes or for most manufacturers’ needs, many may still find themselves returning to manual coating or touch up for trouble parts. 

How a Robotic System Can Help

A robotic system can help improve powder coating in both transfer efficiency and in reducing unnecessary overcoat by better targeting coating according to the shape of a part. If, for instance, 35% of coating is lost due to mixing and another 15 or 20% to overcoat, the savings of reducing these losses by even 50% respectively can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for even the smallest powder coating production. 

The challenge in incorporating robotics, however, is that each robot needs specific programming and jigging in order to be effective for individual parts. For mass manufacturers or those working with highly specialized, expensive coatings with very low part mix, this could allow some to benefit from robotics. However, the real challenge here is that most coaters who use A LOT of coating have a lot of different parts to process, meaning traditional robotics may not really have the answer they’re looking for. 

Why Autonomous Robotics Is the Next Step

Autonomous robotics is different because it’s based on the concept that a robot can be programmed automatically, in real-time, based on simple instructions or parameters driven by the manufacturer. In these circumstances, autonomous robots are able to adapt to the variations in part shapes that most need without compromising the consistency, reliability, or precise output that robots are generally known for.

With this in mind, it’s important for coaters to consider what the real scale of their needs is. If it’s simply one or two robots on a single production line, the autonomy to power them and save those hundreds of thousands (or more) per year may actually be cheaper than you think. 

With AutonomyOS™ and AutonomyStudio™, it’s never been easier to deploy an autonomous robotic system. Using 3D Perception with AI-based Task Planning and Motion Planning, manufacturing engineers and integrators can configure autonomous robotic systems for value-added processes that allow manufacturers to achieve more consistency and flexibility in production than ever before.

Which Industrial Paint Robots Work Best?

While many can often think of robots as far off, futuristic, unrealistic or attainable technology, robots have in fact existed as an industry for more than 50 years. And yes, while autonomous robots that fight crime and solve mysteries may be far off, we’re actually approaching an age where these robots we’ve conventionally ignored can conduct tasks autonomously as well.

In all the time that the robotics market has taken to develop, they have evolved from general to many specific and purpose-built uses and designs. Specific robot models are designed to lift many thousands of pounds, conduct precise operations in very low tolerance ranges, transfer materials at high speed, execute welding or other complex and caustic processes, and do it all within standardization and compliance ranges that ensure they can safely function for decades on end. 

What Makes a Paint Robot Different

Paint robots have to have the appropriate performance, but also the right equipment. Range, reach, speed and degrees of freedom all make a difference – this means that a paint robot won’t support a large payload, just enough for the right tooling, paint or powder gun – but it will need to be fast and reliable in terms of position. 

This is critical for two reasons: accuracy (or complete coverage) and avoiding dry spray. Dry spray can happen in many contexts where, if a paint or coating system is not fast and efficient enough, it will leave parts of the surface to dry while others are still wet. This is difficult when coatings are particularly thin, which is often the case in industrial manufacturing (no worse waste than excess). 

While this is most common in humid environments, the reliability of paint robots to achieve an accurate spray with aggressive settings is essential because – in order to realize significant quality and efficiency improvements over human operators – being able to function at a high level in adverse conditions is essential.

Finally, whether there is a paint pump, a powder mixer or another mix and feed system, paint robots work best when they have a hollow wrist to allow for easy tube management and feeding through the end-effector position of the robot. These robots further require explosion proofing for caustic, flammable or highly volatile coatings (which includes most industrial paints in liquid form). 

What is explosion-proofing?

Explosion-proofing works by effectively forming a pressurized jacket within the casing of the robot. A safety mechanism manages this pressure to ensure that it is constant. If there is a collision or other instance of depressurization, the power source to the entire robot is cut off. 

This may seem drastic, but why is this the case? Robots have active motors that can, in certain conditions, produce a short circuit which could ignite atomized coatings in the air. If said coatings would infiltrate a non-explosion-proofed robot, this would cause an explosion that would destroy the robot and most materials in the paint booth while also posing risks to the health and safety of everyone in the facility. 

Finally, software that can allow you to program (or even automate robot programming in real-time) is essential to driving the output of your paint robot. Depending on the number of parts and variations in your process, traditional programming approaches may not be cost-effective. This is where AutonomyOS™ and AutonomyStudio™ can help. 

What Brands have a Paint Robot

Almost every major industrial brand has its own paint robots, but ABB and FANUC have more than 90% of the market in North America. These robots have unparalleled reach and nimble designs which make them flexible and versatile for a variety of spraying applications, including the ability to flip over and use balanced-arm applications that provide more work volume and more versatility for skilled workers. 

Kawasaki, Yaskawa, Staubli and others of course have their own fine models of paint robots, but in order to best select your paint robot, considering whether your existing robot vendor meets your needs is the best approach as the complexity of going through multiple vendors, drivers, or programming methodologies is more trouble than its worth.

How to Get Started

In order to get started, the best choices are as follows:

  • Speak to your integrator
  • Speak to your OEM provider
  • Speak to a distributor or other expert who can ensure that the mechanical function of a particular robot model will meet your needs

Give and excess envelopes are always essential, even if a slightly higher price is called for. If your application is high-mix (e.g. more than 100 parts per year or batches under 1000) then traditional programming methods will likely create significant inefficiencies. In this context, self-programming or autonomous robotics technology is the most effective way to meet your spray needs – no matter what you want to throw at it!

With AutonomyOS™ and AutonomyStudio™, it’s never been easier to deploy an autonomous robotic system. Using 3D Perception with AI-based Task Planning and Motion Planning, manufacturing engineers and integrators can configure autonomous robotic systems for value-added processes that allow manufacturers to achieve more consistency and flexibility in production than ever before.

The Complete Starter’s Guide to Spray Metal Finishing

Before considering metal finishing for spray processes, it’s important to consider one thing: this is a “starter’s” guide. This doesn’t offer detailed engineering information. This also doesn’t offer safety or compliance standards nor does it offer a means to avoid health and safety risks or to improve an already existing complex process. There are an indefinite number of resources that are much better suited to that – we love the ones provided by PCI (the Powder Coating Institute). 

All that being said, if you’re producing any kind of metal product and looking to evaluate any kind of spray finishing process for metal – whether it’s liquid painting, powder coating or sandblasting – this article is a great place to start because we’re revolutionizing how manufacturers can approach these processes through robotics.

There are three primary spray processes applied in metal finishing: liquid paint, powder coating and sandblasting. Each has its own merit and goals — paint may be easier to repair or more forgiving where baking is not required, powder may function for higher volume and preferred materials, and sandblasting can provide the final finish that customers are looking for. Understanding how to maximize each process is critical to improving overall productivity. 

Liquid Paint Spray Metal Finishing

The primary goal of industrial paint is to provide both an aesthetic and materials-compliant finish that can be touched up or restored without significant challenge while also providing basic protection against surface damage and corrosion.

Paint is typically preferable for light-duty equipment or applications with defined maximum weights (often found in the aerospace industry). Generally, powder coating or other media (ecoat, thermal spray and more) are considered more useful, durable protective coatings for heavy-duty applications and equipment. However, these are also costly and difficult to touch up. 

For instance, why aren’t entire cars powder coated? Well, if a car gets into an accident and does have inevitable damage, the repair would entail re-coating the entire car and baking it to a finish. This may not be feasible or desirable given all the components that go into a finished car, where heavy equipment (like that for construction or snow removal) is usually practically-designed and has many replaceable parts, which means damage can justify rework, recoat or an entirely new part (not to mention that these types of goods don’t generally receive as much as “give” damage in a crash).

So, how do you know if liquid paint is your best spray metal finishing process? Here are a few tips:

  • The primary goal of your finish is aesthetic and you have multiple options
  • The material being coated is not resistant to high temperatures (e.g. 350 degrees Fahrenheit and up, as would apply to aluminium) that are required by alternatives like powder coating
  • High-gloss finish or easier touch-ups are more desired and preferred for the particular product being finished
  • You can’t afford the equipment that comes with powder recovery systems or you would prefer lower consumables costs overall

Powder Coat Spray Metal Finishing

Powder Coating is an electrostatic coating that is applied in a free-floating (but safely contained) environment to materials that can conduct electricity. This electromagnetic attraction allows the powder to “stick” to the surface of your metal products and then transit into a bake oven where the powder is essentially melted/”baked” on to produce a polymer-like finish after final cooling. 

Because of the nature of the coating, excess powder remains in the booth and as long as there is no cross-color contamination, it can be easily recovered and reused (with specialized equipment) to eliminate waste and reduce cleaning required in a booth.

Powder can also prove more durable in the long term, which is why it’s preferred for many applications from heavy equipment to fitness equipment to a variety of small tools and appliances that are deployed in rough circumstances. The total cost of powder can be much lower than paint in the long run, but equipment required may make start-up costs more expensive. 

At the same time, because powder sometimes requires a “spray and pray” approach, it can lead to excess coating beyond your actual thickness requirements. This is effectively the source of most “waste” in powder coating and even for small shops or lines can add up to hundreds of thousands in additional costs per year.

Overall, you should prefer powder for spray metal finishing if you need one of the following:

  • A strong, durable coating in a single color at a high volume
  • A matte-type finish with a fast, easy, forgiving and low-skilled application process
  • Highly automated coating with simple part shapes
  • Highly automated coating with complex part shapes (note: this is addressed through robotics rather than a fixed automated system, but the total price of each can actually be comparable)

Sandblasting Spray for Metal Finishing

Sandblasting or abrasive blasting is an important step that is sometimes the final one to spray metal finishing processes.

This can use a variety of different media to wear down, clean, smooth or flatten out a variety of surfaces in order to ensure that the final top-level coating applied can be sufficiently even to maximize results. 

As it happens, the way in which you want to achieve that best possible finish can vary depending on what media is best suited for the look. Everything from steel shot and grit to glass beads, different naturally occurring sands, walnut shells, corn cobs – all of these media and more enable you to achieve a refined look no matter what final finish you want to produce. 

Now, the challenge in sandblasting is more often how you want to apply this. A manual worker or generally automated systems can be helpful, but in situations where processes are predictable, robotics are generally preferred.

Processes must be very predictable for most robots, however. So, autonomous robots may actually be the best choice for highly varied sandblasting processes where parts or the shape of parts change frequently, but automation is still required. 

Taking Steps Towards a Robotic Process

While spray metal finishing requirements can vary both across and within industries, all industries are facing challenges in terms of both labor and skills shortages, as well as quality of output.

For both of these challenges, robotics is usually a compelling problem solver given its ability to predictably and reliably follow the same instructions over and over again.

Autonomous robots are able to provide this reliability and automation but actually adapt to different parts and circumstances without the need for manual programming or jigging – an opportunity to improve spray metal finishing processes far into the long term. 

With AutonomyOS™ and AutonomyStudio™, it’s never been easier to deploy an autonomous robotic system. Using 3D Perception with AI-based Task Planning and Motion Planning, manufacturing engineers and integrators can configure autonomous robotic systems for value-added processes that allow manufacturers to achieve more consistency and flexibility in production than ever before. Contact us for more info!

How Spraying Robots Improve Consistency

Robots are already well understood as productivity multipliers. Whether it’s on an assembly line or in a simple machine tending scenario, a robot can provide the ease of use and utility needed to do a simple task “on repeat” thousands of times, or even thousands of days on end.

When it comes to more complex value-adds like welding, actual machining or spray processes, the complexity of programming a robot becomes more challenging. When the parts change frequently, it becomes nearly impossible to use a robot – just storing all the jigs to position parts correctly can be an all-consuming task.

So, using a spray robot can help improve consistency, but using an autonomous spray robot can function even better. How is this possible? Autonomous robots can generate complete plans for themselves, which ultimately takes away the programming challenges and allows for the same level of consistency as parts vary. This ultimately gives your workforce more capability while improving your overall productivity and reducing rework. 

Generating a Complete Plan

An autonomous spray robot can SEE, PLAN and EXECUTE processes all on its own. All that’s required from operators is simple process instructions – the robot behavior – and potentially some oversight for high process compliance.

The SEE aspect relies on 3D Perception – depth vision cameras in multiple positions that enable the robot to identify parts in space and make evaluations about which faces to target, at what angles, and what position parts are in. This is all similar to how a human being visually assesses parts when they work in a paint shop, but the way in which decisions are actually made can be a lot more complicated.

The PLAN component of this process relies on the 3D Perception data a robot has, along with process constraints, requirements, targets or goals, behaviors (like standoff from a part or a spray gun cone) and a mix of AI and conventional algorithmic techniques to deduce the most efficient possible robot motion and generate a program for it.

Once all that computing takes place, autonomous robotics technology can EXECUTE a process by taking control of existing industrial robots, including those from brands like FANUC, ABB and more. By taking all of this into account, any type of part or part order can take on the same robotic consistency without the traditional limitations of robotics. 

Simplifying Existing Quality Challenges

By allowing robots to process parts the same way humans do, they can finally compensate for a lot of the limitations human painters face. What are some of the examples here? 

These include fatigue, inaccuracy, inconsistency, incorrect muscle memory and – everyone’s favorite – natural human error. These kinds of issues don’t happen with robots because they are entirely predictable machine systems. Their ability to adapt to different circumstances has been limited in the past because of the extensive programming requirements present in most, but with autonomy, that’s no longer a problem.

So, what happens when you combine the adaptability of humans with the consistency and reliability of a robot? Essentially, the best of both worlds, but you can actually overcome the quality limitations found in many high-mix productions while further reducing the constraints of skills shortages, general labor shortages, supply or consumable limitations and most of the inflexibility that is found in today’s higher volume manufacturing processes.

Giving Your Teams a More Relevant Role

By overcoming these dual limitations — machines that aren’t adaptable, humans that are unreliable — autonomous robots don’t just execute processes in a better way. They actually make it easier for humans to get better jobs and do more thanks to the productivity benefits of working with robots.

When you reduce the burden of highly physically demanding jobs that are ill-suited to human capabilities, you actually make your people more capable of managing new forms of automation, coming up with new approaches to your production and empowering your other team members with more insight on what can be done better.

Improving your Output and Reducing Rework

By reducing rework and improving the continuity of your production, you ultimately make it easier to meet demand, shorten lead times, manage labor challenges, and accelerate your growth. At the same time, the same technology can improve the performance of new processes over time, while also simplifying the ramp-up to new SKUs and productions. All of this makes for an autonomous manufacturing future that has never looked brighter!

With AutonomyOS™ and AutonomyStudio™, it’s never been easier to deploy an autonomous robotic system. Using 3D Perception with AI-based Task Planning and Motion Planning, manufacturing engineers and integrators can configure autonomous robotic systems for value-added processes that allow manufacturers to achieve more consistency and flexibility in production than ever before.

How Paint Robots Reduce Rework

There are few wild beasts more fearsome and concerning to the everyday finishing engineer than the dread three R’s: Rework, Rejections and RMAs. 

In finishing, particularly when it comes to spray processes, achieving the kind of consistency and quality customers expect requires a high degree of both reliability and precision. Experienced painters and operators – or elaborate automation systems – can be engineered to provide high output, but over time many parts will seep through the cracks and simply not get the attention they require.

It’s no wonder that production managers, control specialists and more are vexed by high rework, rejections and RMA rates, and are often looking for a simple solution that may still be out of reach: the paint robot. 

A paint robot is any robot that comes with appropriate dispensing control mechanisms (as well as explosion proofing based on a pressure-sensitive system that prevents any short circuits from combusting caustic spray materials), but a true paint robot requires some fine savvy, coordination and fixturing in order to achieve a consistent output simply not achievable without it.

Fortunately, however, autonomous paint robots are on the way and promise to help manufacturers achieve more and “finish” stronger!

Thinking About a Paint Robot

A paint robot can have a lot of different benefits to manufacturers of all sizes. The primary ones include but are not limited to:

  1. Increased productivity, consistency and uniformity due to a robot arm’s ability to work for years on end without taking a break
  2. Reduced energy and consumables consumption due to the efficiency and effectiveness of a robot in executing consistent work
  3. The unique ability of a robot to take on jobs that humans simply can’t do because of environmental constraints – or take on jobs that simply cause long term disease and illness among the workers who do them
  4. Improved consistency due to less rework and rejections or RMAs (Return Merchandise Authorizations). Particularly for contract manufacturers, this can be the biggest pain point of all. 

Of course, the most important thing to understand is that robots are predictable above all. But robots also require a predictable environment above all in order to work as well as they do. With this environment in question, a few things might get in the way of a paint robot being successfully deployed.

  1. A lot of part variation: this basically comes down to the cost of programming robot motions and tool actions for each individual part in order to achieve the finish you’re looking for – a very expensive and labor-intensive process
  2. Jigging or fixturing: robots are dumb and blind – they don’t execute pre-programmed motions with much intelligence, instead they simply play back whatever their instructions are. This is a challenge because, well, most businesses can’t fixture every single part they process within precise tolerances (e.g. less than 1 mm) in order to achieve the consistent finish they desire. A paint robot can’t help you if you can’t place parts the way it NEEDS them to be placed. 
  3. Management: robotic systems can require a lot of expertise. For instance, a “mostly autonomous” robotic solution might still require some fundamental programming which requires an internal skillset that suddenly becomes both a scarce commodity – and hence a business risk.

How Robots Compare to Existing Finishing Processes

Existing finishing systems usually come in two forms:

  1. Human-driven: this is a painter with protective equipment, sufficient ventilation and a gun. They could be applying paint, gel coat, e coat, powder coating or any kind of industrial-grade media. They can be skilled or unskilled, reliable or unpredictable, but are among the most adaptable solutions because they’re creative – like a person should be.
  2. Fixed automated systems: these can be reciprocating arms or just any spray implement that automatically goes back and forth over a given surface area (or “work volume”). This solution can lead to a lot of waste and overspray, but it gets the job done and if you cover a large volume of parts, it’s cheaper than hiring a bunch of workers

How do these compare to a robot? The first solution is difficult because humans are much more adaptable than traditional robots and also far less consistent. At the same time, this challenge is paradoxical, because even though humans can quickly adapt to new circumstances and parts, they may also be lacking in the ability to achieve the degree of consistency and quality finish that most manufacturers expect today.

At the same time, a skilled engineer may be able to manufacture a solution for consistency based on the capabilities of a fixed automated system, but they also lack the ability to adapt to unique contours and parts – all of that makes it very difficult for a robot to “meet manufacturers in the middle”, and yet makes manufacturers need the specific and unique capabilities of robots to become easier to deploy.

Why Rework is So Painful in General Industry

If you’re in general industry, that tradeoff between agility and consistency is at one more joint position: the difficulty of avoiding rework.

If you’re working on a highly varied batch of parts (could be kitchen cabinets, could be elevators for an airplane), you still need a quality finish to keep your customer satisfied, and yet at the same time, every single part has to have a consistent thickness and uniform reflectivity (or even highly specific weight) that serves as a limiter for what you can achieve with non-robotic systems. 

Here, the cost of robots is still too high, but with autonomous robots, that can change. 

How an Autonomous Paint Robot can Help

To overcome the barriers of traditional robots, autonomous robots help improve the situation by taking in real information on your factory floor and using it to define the position and orientation of parts.

Truly autonomous robots can also generate motions that enable you to avoid the challenge of programming altogether. So, by allowing autonomous robots to automatically perform the most labor-intensive portions of a robotic cell, while also adapting to the part variation that is seen in 80+% of industrial manufacturing, and finally freeing the labor force of the many challenges, risks and vagaries that come with working in a paint booth – that’s what we call an absolute win!

With AutonomyOS™ and AutonomyStudio™, it’s never been easier to deploy an autonomous robotic system. Using 3D Perception with AI-based Task Planning and Motion Planning, manufacturing engineers and integrators can configure autonomous robotic systems for value-added processes that allow manufacturers to achieve more consistency and flexibility in production than ever before.