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5 Tips to Program an Industrial Robot (and 1 to Do It Even Better)

There are two types of robot integrators: those who’ve programmed hundreds of robots, and those who are doing it for the first time. All kidding aside, it is a unique skill and field. Those with talent often become the reference among their peers and even within the industry as a whole, and yet getting to that point requires both a cunning mind and an open perspective on how to really “get the job done”.

With all that in mind, here’s 5 tips to think about how to program your first industrial robot and what that motion program and process will look like. With the variety of options in programming available today – from traditional approaches to offline programming, hand guidance and easier cobot applications – everything is on the table in order to find ways to get the job done. 

Tip 1: Understand Use Case and Limitations

The most important thing to understand about programing a robot is “point A and point B”. Robots are entirely programmatic beings, they are not here on earth to understand everything about your needs – they are here to do exactly as you say. We could file this under the category of “be careful what you wish for”.

What does this mean? Well, if you want your robot to reach a certain point in space over and over again, adopting a wide range of motion in order to execute a process, you have to be wary of the mechanical limitations of each joint and motor.

Industrial robot process applications are extremely diverse. While the logistics market grows, shortages of skilled labor make value-added automation more essential than ever. Source: International Federation of Robotics

By the same token, if you want a robot to execute a simple process (like dispense glue on one side of circuit or a panel) you have to ensure that the robot moves at the appropriate speed and in coordination with the rest of your production, without pushing its mechanical limits to a point where its accuracy might diminish. 

Tip 2: Define Your “Happy Path”

In software development, a Happy Path is a default scenario in which no errors or exceptions occur. This is meant to be indefinitely repeatable, which means that it could go on forever without interruption or maintenance.

Robots effectively perform the same function in industrial scenarios. They’re able to function around the clock for years on end with minimal maintenance or downtime. At the same time, they can only do so if there are absolutely no surprises when it comes to the position of the parts they are processing. With this in mind, where every motion is repeated, the most balanced and repeatable robot motion must be programmed according to a part position that permits even or consistent operation – whether the part being processed is jigged in place or moving on a line. 

Path planning requires an understanding of obstacles and constraints, including when a particular motion is not possible. Source: UNC

Tip 3: Prepare for the Worst

Any number of inputs could push a robot off its happy path. A misplaced part, a collisionable object, a poorly timed motion that causes a collision, or human interference on the factory floor.

As such, you have to imagine the worst and prepare for it. Most industrial robots come with a cage or some sort of protective containment mechanism available when they are in full operation. At the same time, cobots also come with built-in safety features that prevent collisions from causing significant harm to both other equipment and people, but collisions still stop operations and ultimately cost money in the form of downtime and wasted capacity.

With that in mind, play the role of Alfred Hitchcock and visualize the worst that could happen in your particular processing area. What are the entry points? What are the circumstances of entry? Who could enter? What is their knowledge level?

Light screens can be used to both manage entry into robotic cell and limit inadvertent entrance without obstructing an engineers vision on the process taking place. Source: Industr.

A final point to make about preparing for the worst: no matter the knowledge level, robots have been around for only a few decades. In the context of human evolution, this means that no safety measure can be left out – it’s possible for even smart people to do stupid things. 

Tip 4: See How Long You Can Stay Off the Floor

Programming is a time-consuming, perfection-demanding process. This means that it will always take longer than you expect, and as such you must minimize the amount of time taken up by the programming process in your actual production area.

Offline programming solutions are a great way to minimize the final costs of robot programming. By working in a virtual environment and seeing the different commands and sequences you introduce take place, you are able to prepare robotic operations based on CAD files of your parts and technical or environmental limitations (like possible collisions) without ever having to step foot in your final production environment.

Of course, you’ll still need to understand the layout and material flow through that environment, as well as test your offline-generated programs in the real robotic cell before that program is put into production. All in all, however, it’s a small price to pay in order to “shorten the learning curve” for your next installation. 

Offline Programming remains a practical application for those committed to manually programming a robotic cell while limiting manual downtime. Source: Robodk

Tip 5: Stay In the Loop on Production

For a robotic process, the robot can stay the same for years, but new end effectors can always provide more precision, bandwidth or ease of use that can ultimately increase the lifetime of the robot for that particular operation, while further improving the quality, consistency or productivity of said process.

It’s important to not stop at the “water’s edge” when it comes to robotic engineering. Robot’s play a role in every type of industrial process, but what’s important to understand is where they are the perfect solution and where they may simply add more complexity than they solve. 

For value-added processes, it’s also important to consider where equipment that supports the robot will change. For instance, flexible jigging can help simplify certain robotic welding applications – especially when it comes to large, boxy or tubular parts. Sometimes, understanding where equipment can help a single type of shape can have tremendous productivity benefits over the long term. 

Modern management techniques necessitate responsiveness to end-customer needs. These changeover costs can be costly without proper planning and anticipation – particularly when it comes to robots. Source: All About Lean

BONUS Tip: Don’t “PROGRAM” at All!

Programming robots is a passion for some, but for others there might simply be too much programming to do for it to be enjoyed. In these situations, robots can still serve a role. 

Autonomous manufacturing robots eliminate the need for programming because they can generate robot motions in real process time using only a few of the following factors:

  • Real-time, sensor-based 3D Reconstructions of your parts
  • A digital twin of your robotic process cell
  • Specified process GOALS for your parts

With this capability in hand, not only can you forget all about programming, but you can introduce a robot to high-mix production lines without worrying about your variation in parts or the need to jig and consistently position them. 

Autonomous manufacturing robots enable engineers and integrators to deploy more robots in less time, with less work and greater responsiveness to part variation – meaning high-mix manufacturers can finally take full advantage of robotic automation.

Once it’s set up, the process practically takes care of itself, while further allowing you to optimize the process output using specific, easy-to-understand instructions and all without the need to program a robot and all the time, cost, and trouble that programming leads to.

Now that’s a hot tip!

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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