How to enable robots to achieve new levels of factory automation

For more than 50 years, robots have played an ever-increasing role in various industries, ranging from automobiles to electronics to consumer goods, successfully transforming productivity, cost efficiency, and often greater safety to repetitive task performance.

They continue to evolve even today, offering greater functionality, flexibility, range of motion, speed, and precision, not only in protected spaces on assembly lines but increasingly side-by-side interacting with human workers in a shared workspace environment.

All robots used today in industrial automation are technically called industrial robots. We can still divide them into three groups depending on their applications in industrial automation: industrial robots, logistics robots, and collaborative robots.

Industrial robots are units fixed to handle painting, picking and placing, welding, assembling, and lifting objects to set them on pallets or in containers. They are designed to perform tasks quickly, accurately, and without direct interaction with humans. Thus, they have no sensors to perceive people’s presence and are not designed to accommodate people within their operational space. When human interaction is necessary, the robot will usually be deactivated. For human safety and noninterference with the operation, industrial robots are generally installed inside fences, transparent walls, or light-activated barriers with an array of floor mats and other protective barriers that can cut off power when stepped on.

Logistics robots are mobile units operating in environments such as warehouses, where people are present. They are used to fetch goods and bring them to a packing station or transport goods from one building to another. They typically move within a particular environment and need several ultrasonic, infrared, and LIDAR sensors for localization and mapping to prevent collisions, especially with humans. The control unit is located inside the robot to gain mobility, often with wireless communication to the central remote control.

Collaborative robots enable the most complex interactions with humans. They often work directly with a person on the same object simultaneously, such as holding an object while a human worker visually inspects it or performs fine-tuning tasks. The robot might then set the object down for another robot to pick it up, possibly to move it to a new location for collaboration with a different worker.

Manufacturing companies turn to automation, powered by industrial robots, logistics robots, and collaborative robots, for a variety of reasons:

  • Increasing labor productivity — Automating manufacturing operations increases production rates and labor productivity, yielding greater output rates per labor hour.
  • Reducing labor costs — Automated machines can substitute for human labor to reduce unit product costs.
  • Handling effects of labor shortages—There is a general shortage of labor in many advanced nations, especially in both high and low technical fields
  • Reducing or eliminating routine manual tasks—Routine or repetitive tasks can be handled through automation, removing human involvement and associated health issues from the work environment.
  • Improving worker safety—Removing human workers from the point of operation or the process improves workplace safety conditions.
  • Improving product quality—Automated processes are repetitive and can deliver good quality products, consistently limiting defect and rework rates.
  • Reducing manufacturing lead time—Automation reduces the elapsed time between customer orders to product deliveries.
  • Accomplishing process which cannot be done manually—Automation can help obtain intricate geometries; otherwise may not be possible or timely and costly to achieve.
  • Making production and resources planning more consistent—Repetitiveness and consistency make predictions regarding cycle times and material usages more successful.
  • Making processes and systems flexible and agile for changing designs due to decreasing product life cycles and needs for shorter response time to markets.

Technology requirements for industrial robotics

For robots to operate in ever-more-complex ways, they must have a full range of advanced technologies and integrated circuit (IC) products to process a great deal of sensing about their changing environment, communicate with each other and with their centralized control units, and perform complex functions that adapt to environmental changes and keep them from harming humans. From sensors to actuators or motors, from individual equipment units to factory level control and beyond, they should handle the entire signal chain and the processing and power required for robotic applications.

Robots with flexible application capabilities can save manufacturers from investing in more specialized machines while enabling more complete, shorter, and efficient production runs and new uses on the factory floor. Besides, many factories today add more communication layers and control to production lines to bring together more data for better process control and maintenance while making processes more responsive to changing product demands.

Therefore, a systematic approach is required from the robot developers to enable precise sensing, high-speed signal conversion, fast computation and signal processing for real-time response and high-speed communications, and new factory automation levels. This approach generally involves several phases such as;

Requirements capture

There are plenty of examples of failed implementations of robots and automation in manufacturing. One reason why failure occurs is due to an inadequate understanding of the process being automated at the start of the design process. As a result, the system was designed for a task that it was unsuitable for or could not complete, with the robot or automation taking the blame for the failure. To be successful, you should gather as much information as possible, including:

(a) the current state of the process;
(b) understanding the handling characteristics of the products in the process and their environment
(c) the problem you are trying to solve with automation or robotics, and the risks involved
(d) the desired future target.

Understanding the existing system or process and capturing the system specifications is equally important since they define the parameters that your new automated system will have to work within. Such parameters could include material flow, part flow through the process, frequencies, throughput rates, variants, sizes, weights, part condition requirements, and orientations. Once the existing state is fully understood, it is important to define what the desired future state is expected to be. At this stage, you should fully define all the input and output parameters for the future system.

Define the specification

Understanding the problem, you would like automation to solve is crucial to a successful implementation. However, just understanding the problem is not enough; you need to communicate this to other stakeholders, particularly if you are planning to use an external vendor to design and install your system.

Even if you plan to implement automation yourself, having a well-written User Requirements Specification will ensure that what you put into operation delivers what you expected and solves your problem.

Many organizations purchase and implement automation without a detailed specification. This then makes it very difficult for any vendor or external supplier to understand what you require and, as a result, means that it is likely to become a source of problems either during project execution or at the end of the project when requirements have not been met.

Concept and simulation

The initial concept design is often based on experience, and this is where a system integrator, robot supplier, or consultant can help you develop a concept. However, there is often the opportunity to examine new and different concepts; you don’t necessarily have to be bound by previously implemented designs.

Concept design is an iterative process – so be prepared to examine several designs before deciding on the optimal choice. What is important here is to efficiently measure each concept against the requirements you’ve previously defined so that it solves your problem. Tools such as TRIZ or a Pugh Matrix are often good approaches to use.

Once you have a concept design, it’s a good idea to use 3D CAD tools to visualize the layout and workflow. While many 3D CAD packages have built-in kinematic models, it might be useful to simulate the system in a fully kinematic simulation environment. Again, your system integrator, robot supplier, or consultant should be able to support you with this. A fully kinematic simulation will allow you to check for access/reach issues, interactions between the robot and other devices, and cycle time concerns. Some systems allow for ‘virtual commissioning’ to be carried out through the simulation. It allows all programs and control parameters to be built and tested in the simulation before being downloaded to the ‘real’ world. This can significantly reduce the time taken to build, test, and commission the real system.

Select the vendor

Selecting the right vendor is critical to the success of the installed system. Your chosen vendor has to not only be the right choice from a financial and technical perspective, but they should also be the right ‘fit’ for your company. In other words, making a decision based on prices or specification alone may provide the cheapest (although this is often a false economy) or a high-performing system, but the journey to get there may be fraught with difficulties and disagreements.

You should also consider the vendor’s experience and background – particularly if the automation process project is complex. Knowing that your vendor has the right experience and mindset is as important to success as the system that they design. It is also prudent to check on the financial ‘health’ of any prospective vendor.

Using a Vendor Selection tool will greatly benefit you as each vendor will reply to your specification differently. Such a tool also allows you to score each proposal on the same criteria making assessment and selection easier. During the selection process, you may need to seek clarification from a vendor or find that one vendor offers an alternative solution. In this instance, it would be unethical to share such information with competing vendors.

Detailed design

Once a vendor has been selected, it is recommended that the customer and vendor project manager hold a kick-off meeting to review the entire project to ensure no misunderstandings. During this meeting, a project plan and review schedule should be produced. It’s worth making sure that all meetings between the customer and vendor are recorded in minutes if there are any disputes later in the project.

Most projects normally enter a design phase when the initial concepts are detailed, and the electrical and control systems are defined. Further simulations may still be required at this stage. A functional design specification is developed throughout the design stage, detailing the mechanical, electrical, and control systems. This is a living document that develops over time and may be subject to several Preliminary Design Reviews before a Critical Design Review occurs. At this stage, the design is ‘frozen,’ and procurement and construction may commence.

Offsite build

When construction commences, this can be carried out at the customers’ site but is usually done at the vendor’s site, where they have the expertise, tools, and materials to hand. This ensures that existing operations can proceed without distraction. During the build process, the customer should visit the vendor frequently to view the new system as it develops. This allows progress to be checked and offers the customer the opportunity to see the systems first hand and highlight any changes that may be needed. These visits could also include members of the customer’s production and maintenance teams to allow them to gain first-hand experience of the system.

The outcome of this stage should be the conducting of a Factory Acceptance Test (FAT). There may be pressure from the vendor to rush this test, but this should be resisted as any problems identified at this point are more easily rectified than on the customers’ site. When conducting a FAT, it is a good opportunity to introduce operators to the system and train them on its use. This is a very useful way to highlight problems that may have been missed in the design phase. To effectively do this, it’s highly likely that sample parts will be required to be used to adequately test the system’s functions.

Installation

Installation and commissioning are often considered to be the same activity. Still, in this post, they are split into two distinct activities as there are some clear differences between the two. Installation is the process of getting the equipment in place and making all necessary connections between them. It’s tempting to think that the installation phase is the complete responsibility of the supplier, but there are several factors that the customer needs to consider at this stage; such as:

(a) the health and safety of the vendor’s staff on-site;
(b) adherence to regulations such as Construction & Design Management (2015) and others;
(c) lifting equipment provision;
(d) access to the site;
(e) disruption to other activities; and
(f) method statements and risk assessments for the work being carried out.

It’s often best to discuss these subjects with the supplier early to avoid any confusion or delays at a later stage.

Commissioning

Commissioning is distinct from installation because it prepares the system for use in the production environment and optimizes all parameters and features for the inputs and outputs that the system encounters in that environment. This can take some time if the system deals with several parts or situations, so it is worth planning these to minimize commissioning time. It’s also worth remembering that a ready supply of parts and production operatives will be required at this stage. This stage’s output should be a Site Acceptance Test, which is the last chance to confirm that the system operates as expected before the final handover to you.

Operation

So finally, your new automation system is fully installed and commissioned, and final acceptance has been completed; it’s time to start using it! But there are a few points to be aware of before getting too carried away. The most important of these is ensuring that you, as the user, have all the documentation you need to comply with the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations (PUWER). While your chosen supplier can support this, the onus is on you as the system’s owner and operator to ensure this documentation is created and maintained.

This documentation should also include the Certificate of Conformity (or CE mark) that the supplier should attach to the system and provide to you. But a word of caution here – it’s a good idea not to allow the supplier to hand this over to you until you are fully satisfied that they have provided what you asked for (i.e., the system is doing what it should). You have been fully trained in its operation and maintenance.

Another important point to consider is your production and maintenance team’s training to properly use and service the equipment. But simply training your staff is not enough. For the system to be really effective, it’s a good idea to ensure that your workforce understands why you have introduced automation, particularly if the staff has been displaced or redeployed as a direct result. You should also consider whether you will be introducing the system in a phased ramp-up or in one go (a big bang); the latter is not advised but may be unavoidable.

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