You are planning flexible automation of your production with lightweight robots? This step-by-step guide explains how to go about it.
Robots can simplify a wide variety of processes in a company. How to find the right application for robotic automation is explained in this article. – Image: adobestock/metamorworks
The idea of automating your production with the help of lightweight robots has been on your mind for quite some time? But you still lack a bright idea for which activity and at which point robot-assisted automation is most worthwhile. We help you. Together with robotics specialist Danny Denk, we have created a guide on how to properly approach a project with lightweight robots. Mr. Denk is CEO of Ecosphere Automation, which provides automation consulting, robot rental and robot systems integration services.
Get to lightweight robotics in your own store with these 4 steps
Step 1: Find the right application for the robot
Step 2: Analyze desired robot application
Step 3: Document the application
Step 4: Implement application
Step 1: Find the right application for the robot
First of all, it must be clarified what the lightweight robot is supposed to do in the first place. As soon as you automate a manual process by robot, you free humans from this task and they can take over other activities with higher added value. So a robot serves to relieve the workload of your employees.
To find a suitable application, you should start by asking yourself the following questions: Where in my business are there repetitive tasks performed by hand that are constantly repeated? Classic areas are, for example, the application of adhesive beads to components, the setting of weld seams or the loading and unloading of CNC machines.
In addition, the following four boundary parameters help to find the right application:
- Ergonomics and
- Your employees.
In terms of quality, it is important to weigh up whether a human or a robot can produce the desired product quality more reliably and cost-effectively. The human hand, for example, is not designed to perform an exact linear movement in the same sequence of movements, as is required when applying adhesive beads. Instead, a robot can run the exact same web all day while making sure that the pressure in the adhesive dispensing system is in order and thus applying just the right amount of adhesive. This eliminates the need for downstream quality inspection. A manual process can result in quality deficits, which in turn generate expensive returns. A manual process may therefore require an additional quality loop.
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Another marginal parameter is time. This is about how many times a certain task has to be done in a day and how long this task takes in each case. Robots may love to do the exact same job for hours at a time. (To find out what jobs a robot can do for you, read this post.) But this is not the basic requirement for a useful robot application. Also consider if there are things that need to be done multiple times a day for half an hour or an hour. If these processes can be combined and, for example, three different products are inserted into the robotic cell at the same time, then a robot is also worthwhile in this case.
Shift work can also play a role. For example, if a robot takes over loading machines on the night shift, it not only relieves the employee of this tedious task. Optimally, it saves a complete night shift and therefore a lot of money.
Another marginal parameter is ergonomics. Consider here which tasks take place in a dirty or noisy environment, cause back pain or have to be performed in adverse conditions. The latter can be chemical loads as well as welding fumes. Exactly these tasks are predestined for a robot.
And don’t forget the most important of all marginal parameters: Your employees. People usually have much less respect for a lightweight robot than for a classic, large industrial robot. You see it more as a colleague. The sooner you get your employees excited about lightweight robotics, the better.
It usually pays off to involve your team in the robotics project. Simply ask, "How can you best be assisted by a robot in this application??"And your employee already realizes that the robot is by no means intended to replace him, but rather to make his work easier. Reservations about the robot are eliminated right from the start and the robot becomes a friend and not a foe.
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Step 2: Analyze the desired robot application
You have found a task in your company that you want your robot colleague to take over immediately and now you want to really get started. Unfortunately, it is not possible to go to the hardware store, buy a robot and the appropriate tools, and then install everything yourself at home. We recommend that you first take a closer look at the desired application – preferably together with an experienced system integrator. "You can get so much more out of an application by analyzing the customer’s process" reports Danny Denk from his experience. "And that’s exactly what we do as an integrator." During such an analysis, the following points are examined:
- Autarky time,
- Product matrix,
- Process steps.
The so-called autarky time indicates how long the robotic system runs independently and thus without human support. This question must be answered regardless of what type of robotic system is being planned. Whether a collaborative system where humans and robots work hand in hand, a coexistence solution where humans only enter the robot’s workspace from time to time, or a shielded robot cell is desired, self-sufficiency time is an important parameter in all cases.
A product matrix describes the different product variants of a manufacturer. This is not only about the number of product variants. In a robotics project, it is also necessary to check whether a product is produced in widely differing weight classes. Because every robot is designed for a specific maximum payload. If you want to process products weighing one kilogram and products weighing 20 kilograms with the same robot, the entire system must be designed for the largest or heaviest part. In this case, it may be more economical to produce only 80 percent of all product variants with the automated system and to produce the rarely occurring, heavy product variant by hand.
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Next, break down the application into its individual process steps. A robotic application usually includes the processes of feeding, robotic processing – which can be welding, gluing, gripping, drilling, milling and more – and removal. For example, if the welding time is 30 seconds and the setup time is five minutes, then it is not the welding process that must be automated, but the overall process.
However, not all steps in the process have to be automated in principle. There are also clever ideas how to feed products by hand while the robot system is running. Then one works, for example, with a buffer container for the material, which the employee fills in between.
Once all these points have been examined, system integrator Ecosphere works with an on-site demonstration. At the user’s site, the desired robot application is set up and tested with a temporary interface within a few hours. Denk brings a robot and gripper from his stash for this purpose, if that is sufficient for the demonstration test. The user pays a daily rate for this. If the user decides to have the application implemented by Ecosphere, the money for this consulting service is credited back to the user.
"With a demonstration like this, I have a gut feeling pretty quickly whether the desired application can be realized," Denk reveals. Sometimes, however, you may find that an application next to it is much better suited to robotics.
Danny Denk is CEO of robotics systems integrator Ecosphere. Together with Kollege-Robot project manager Susanne Nordinger, he has created a step-by-step implementation guide for lightweight robots. – Image: Ecosphere
Step 3: Documenting the application
Once it has been agreed that an application can be reasonably automated by a robot, the next step is to draw up the specifications. All important parameters of the robot application are documented there, such as cycle time, size of parts to be processed, product matrix, autarky time, process steps and much more. A sketch of the robot application and the safety concept are also part of the contract.
It also makes sense to create such a specification for smaller medium-sized end customers and for simple applications. Because the whole thing is later part of the contract of a robot project and thus everything is documented.
If the customer and integrator jointly sign the completed specifications, the project has specifications and it is documented who is responsible for which part. For example, the user knows that he has to take care of the delivery by conveyor belt and the integrator also knows which obligations he has to fulfill. This way both sides are covered and there are no delays in the project.
What is a lightweight robot?
Lightweight robots are a particularly lightweight form of industrial robots. They support the automation of production processes and usually weigh less than 30 kilograms. Due to their low weight, they can be carried by humans and can therefore be used relatively flexibly at different workplaces. Lightweight robots are often also suitable for human-robot collaboration, i.e. collaboration between humans and robots without a protective fence. Then they are also called cobots (collaborative robots). In this article we have listed the most important cobots for craftsmen and medium-sized businesses.
Step 4: Implement the application
After the specifications have been signed, the integrator usually takes over the helm. You as the user can therefore lean back. The integrator first selects the right robot model and robot accessories for the application based on the parameters in the specifications, programs the application so that it will run properly later, and also takes care of the following:
- Cost-benefit calculation,
- Safety concept,
- Risk assessment
The cost-benefit calculation of the application does not only take place at this stage. Rather, one should have the economic efficiency on the screen from the beginning and consider it in all phases of the project. It’s still common for users to pick a complicated application that doesn’t pay off very quickly.
Then, on demo day at the site, the Ecosphere team realizes that it would pay off much faster to automate another application next door. The cost-benefit calculation must therefore be considered in all four steps, before, during and after the demo. However, the ROI of a robot project cannot be calculated down to the smallest detail. You always have to estimate a little bit and find a useful value.
However, the issue of safety does not allow any compromises. Special rules apply to the safety of machines and the safety of robots. We have summarized these rules and norms in this article. But the user does not have to worry about this. This task is done by the integrator. It is important that a system is not only safe, but also continues to be operable. There are different techniques to secure lightweight robots. This includes ground scanners or even 3D sensors that monitor the robot’s workspace. Another concept is the classic protective screen or fence.
"Our experience shows that a plexiglass screen around the lightweight robot is the best and most cost-effective solution in many cases," Denk reports. Because a lightweight robot does not have enough force to penetrate such a pane and thus break through it. Customers want a robot cell that is operable, affordable and productive, according to Ecosphere. "Whether with or without a protective screen, it usually doesn’t matter to the customer," explains Denk.
The so-called risk assessment is part of the security concept and should not be done without an expert partner. If you implement the robotics application alone, i.e. you choose the hardware alone, then you should at least get a consultant here who checks the safety and gives necessary advice.
"When an integrator builds a machine, the risk assessment is of course our duty," Denk says. If the robot application meets all regulations, the integrator finally awards the CE mark for the application. And this is an important point. Because whoever takes over the CE is subsequently liable for the machine.
Mobile cells are a special matter. This is always the case when a lightweight robot has to work alternately at different workstations. From the documentation side, this is a separate application each time and one should make a separate CE for each individual application. If this is the case, the robot can switch between stations at will. And just such a mobile application is exciting for medium-sized companies. Because, especially in smaller companies, there are often several places where robotics would make sense, but a single application cannot be automated economically.