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Is My Factory Ready For a Robot?

Maybe it’s the last missed shift, the last missed order, or a looming retirement from one of your stalwart employees – being ready for a robot is something that tends to linger in the background, but then happens all at once.

Robots have their benefits, but deciding whether it’s the right time to start using a robot always depends on a basic cost-benefit analysis. Given that the hardware costs are usually at most a third of the total cost that comes with integrating robotics, it can often be difficult to assess how much you will save in the long term by investing in a robot today.

With the intensive programming and location jigging – along with the fact that robots only work with parts you program them for – most factories today still don’t see black ink from robotics projects, which for many has left derelict units to be stored in back rooms. Unfortunate, when their true potential could be so much greater.

However, with self-programming technology for robots, a new generation of factories may finally be ready to incorporate robots into their production lines. With as much as 70% of North American industrial manufacturers considered to have a high-product-mix (generally batch sizes under 1000 or working on more than 100 SKUs per year), your factory may be one among thousands that can access the benefits of industrial robotics for the first time. 

Why are Robots so good?

Understanding what makes a robot advantageous requires understanding how fundamentally different a robot is from a human being.

Unlike a person, a robot doesn’t get tired, doesn’t take breaks, needs direction but not motivation, is always consistent and works as is programmed and is able to operate in this way at high speed, all hours of the day and with minimal maintenance. Firms like Fanuc, ABB, Yawaska, Universal Robots and more have been working for decades to create industrial robots that achieve this output in ways not previously thought possible, and their impeccable reliability is to this day still sometimes hard to believe.

For a human worker, they simply cannot keep up – however, why would they want to? You can’t pay a worker enough to apply effort equivalent to what a high-performance machine can do.

Because of the high volume, value and predictability of parts and environment, a majority of industrial robots are used for tasks in the automotive and consumer electronics sectors – and rarely for value-added processes outside of those industries.

The exception to the benefits of robots, of course, is that a robot needs extensive programming for any new task. A human being can learn and adapt quickly to new challenges, which is in part why many high-mix industrial processes are still so reliant on skilled human labor. 

At the same time, industrial labor has still grown scarce in many parts of the world – not the least in North America. Though human beings can adapt to novel tasks rapidly, those same tasks can quickly become mundane and unstimulating, ultimately reducing the quality of work produced. In a comic way, maybe the real difference between robots and humans is that robots don’t need to achieve “self-actualization” to do a good job.

When you take that difference out of it, however, the fact that robots can function so constantly and consistently for so long can increase output by multiples over a human workforce, reduce energy and consumables usage, eliminate many health and safety risks and make existing workers more productive by doing tasks that are safer or more enjoyable.

Of course this happens if – and only if – the robot knows what it’s doing, and the environment around it never changes.

What’s Stopped You From Using Robots Now

It’s hard to understand the upper bound of the payback you can get from using a robot, but in terms of understanding the massive impact they have, it might help to know that it’s estimated that up to 10% of per capita GDP growth in the OECD between 1993 and 2006 came directly from industrial robotics. There are few other technologies that we could consider to have the same productivity benefits. 

As mentioned above, when a human and a robot need to work on the same part again and again, the robot will win hands down every time. 

When multiple parts are involved, whether changing shapes, orders or processes, a skilled human worker is more likely to win out in terms of productivity. 

And yet, why can’t we take the productivity robots have and apply it to a large variety of parts at once? There are two costs to consider here: that of robot programming and location jigging – both of which entail large amounts of time and money to get right, and without precise execution can tally up significant rework costs, shutdowns and scrapped parts. Robot programming and integration is expensive and time consuming.

These programming and jig costs almost always exceed the cost of the robot itself, and that’s just for one part. With industrial robots often costing $50,000 or more per unit, the additional costs of programming – as well as the structured environments, work orders and location jigs needed to make them work – means that all these costs can add up too quickly for high-mix manufacturers to benefit.

If you have 10, 20 or 100 parts that your robot could potentially work on, traditional robot programming has meant that you basically haven’t been able to use an industrial robot – nor should you have ever considered it.

So what’s the right move here? According to Sameer Hasija and Aarti Gumaledar of the Harvard Business Review, you want to consider robots where two basic conditions are met: (1) the task you are automating is a bottleneck and (2) the tasked environment must be highly controlled. These have long been the standards for robotics integration, but with self-programming technology, the limits of the standards are becoming significantly reduced.

What is Self-Programming Technology for Robots?

Self-programming robotics is a new field based on the new powers of AI to automate increasingly complex tasks in a rapid period of time. With robotics, this involves giving them sensing capabilities – for example, 3D vision capabilities in the case of spray or finishing processes – and then translating the information provided by those senses into functionally self-programming robot motions, toolpaths and process outputs.

Omnirobotic’s AutonomyStudio™ is used to configure autonomous robotic systems. The scene editor and behavior editor allow systems to function without collisions and within basic process constraints for an indefinite number of parts.

In the case of industrial painting or powder coating, a robot with self-programming capabilities is able to identify part shapes, faces, sizes and positions in real-time. This firstly removes the need for intensive location jigging because a self-programming solution can inherently adapt to parts in any orientation.

Then, with AI capabilities and simple instructions, self-programming robots can generate their own motion and tool paths, effectively doing the full job of a spray or finishing process in the intuitive way a skilled human being would, but with the consistency and repeatability that a human could never match. 

At the same time, these protocols can permit for spray process know-how like preferred patterns, finishes, thickness and evenness of application to be accounted for, as well as technical challenges like faraday caging. Using a simple software interface, minimally-trained operators can even specify particular part faces or surfaces, so that different colors and coating needs can easily be respected on the same parts.

So, if you weren’t ready for a robot before because it either a) required you to redesign your entire production or b) couldn’t meet your part mix needs, you may be ready now. With this technology, you can work on an indefinite variety, all processed in sequence at near real-time rates, while even specifying part faces and different processes according to those faces through tools like CAD files. All of this empowers your operation to grow without sacrificing your short-term bottom line, and while mitigating energy, consumables and labor costs that are only destined to expand in the long term.

How to know if you’re ready for a robot

If you’ve looked at robots before but thought it was too expensive, or never even considered whether it’s possible to use a robot, then you may want to think about whether self-programming technology is right for you.

Self-programming technology doesn’t just make it easier to integrate a robot, but finally makes it profitable for high-mix manufacturers to finally do so. How can you tell if you’re slated to benefit? The more workers, shifts, spray processes or positions you have left empty in your finishing department, the more a modest investment in a robot may in the long run both save on salaries, consumables, rework and – ultimately – enable the rest of your workforce to do more and even allow you to hire for more of the jobs that people actually love doing.

So, if you’re tired of waiting on the finishing department to finish the job, or if you’ve got complex part shapes that need intensive thermal spraying or sandblasting that simply doesn’t get done with your existing workflow, contact Omnirobotic to learn more about what self-programming technology can do for your. 

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.

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