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:
- Increased productivity, consistency and uniformity due to a robot arm’s ability to work for years on end without taking a break
- Reduced energy and consumables consumption due to the efficiency and effectiveness of a robot in executing consistent work
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.