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Automation

What to consider before buying a robot for your factory

By Jonathan Wilkins

Have you ever ordered a piece of furniture that wouldn’t fit through your front door? Perhaps you’ve booked a holiday to Thailand that turned out to be in monsoon season. It pays to do your research before making a purchase. This is particularly true for manufacturing plant managers when buying a robot.

From cartesian to six-axis robots, there’s a vast choice of automated systems available for different purposes. Because there are so many options, it can be difficult for companies to choose which model to invest in.

The term ‘robot’ has become blurred over the decades, so that many people are now confused by the differences between robotics, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT). The International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) defines an industrial robot as a piece of machinery that performs its tasks automatically and autonomously, can be reprogrammed, acts as a multipurpose manipulator and moves on at least three axes of motion. However, the ISO criteria define the minimum capabilities of an industrial robot — many are capable of much more.

The main reason for implementing robotics is to increase the productivity, efficiency and quality of your manufacturing processes. Before choosing a robot, decide which processes in your factory a robot could add the most value to. Then, you can identify the functionalities required of the robot.

Functionality

The first priority when deciding which robot to purchase should be to narrow down by application. If you’re looking to automate a pick and place activity, a selective compliance articulated robot arm (SCARA) robot might be most suitable. As the name suggests, a SCARA robot is a robotic arm that is pliable in the X-Y axis but rigid in the Z-axis, which makes it ideal for assembly actions. It also has a jointed two-link arm, allowing it to extend into confined areas and then retract out of the way.

If your application requires the robot to work closely alongside human staff, a collaborative robot will most likely be for you. These robots are designed and programmed to work in close proximity with humans safely and effectively.

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The degree of freedom and movement that your robot will require to perform its function will determine the number of axes it will need. As a forward thinker in a rapidly changing industry, you might want to consider purchasing a robot with a greater number of axes than currently required. As technology advances, your robot will have the potential to adapt to the future needs of the business. However, it should be noted that you will have to program every axis, even those not yet required.

Manufacturers, especially those in highly regulated sectors such as pharmaceutical and food and beverage manufacture, must choose a robot with high accuracy and repeatability. It’s a common mistake to buy an accurate robot without considering how well it repeats the accurate motion. High accuracy and repeatability rely on effective braking systems, so check the details of this in the robot’s specifications.

A downfall of traditional robots is their inability to adapt to changing circumstances. For example, if the path of an automated guided-vehicle (AGV) is obstructed, the AGV stops in its tracks, unable to change its path. Machine learning technology is giving rise to robots that can analyse data from past experiences and new circumstances to make autonomous decisions. This could enable AGVs to alter their route so that an obstruction does not cause delays in the manufacturing processes. For industrial plants that change their processes on a regular basis, a robot with the ability to autonomously make decisions is a sensible choice.

The sensors that a robot needs depend on the nature of its tasks. Plant managers must know which tasks they will be delegating to robots so that they can choose a robot with the required sensing capabilities. A robot involved in quality control would benefit from an array of sensing capabilities including 3D vision, tactile feedback, force control and infrared sensing. This would allow it to detect features of a product that are present, absent, or incorrect.

Connectivity

A robot can no longer be considered as a single entity. Factories are fully automating entire processes by connecting all of their electronic devices, allowing them to communicate, interact and share data autonomously. One challenge businesses are facing as this era of connectivity develops is a lack of standardisation across devices and machines.

Prevent a lack of standardisation from hindering your company’s technological advancements by buying a robot that can connect with all other devices in your factory and incorporate into your wireless networks.

You must be aware of the cyber-threats posed by this widespread connectivity. As your business expands its networks and increases the mobility of its connected devices, the risks increase. Data including corporate intelligence, employee details and customer information becomes vulnerable, so it’s important to make sure you have adequate cybersecurity measures in place before introducing a new robot.

Environmental Suitability

A robot will not be able to perform as required if it cannot access the areas it’s expected to work in. To avoid this becoming an issue, determine the size of robot your factory needs. As well as ensuring the dimensions are appropriate, you should consider the weight you need the robot to be, especially if it will be sat on a bench or other delicate structure.

If your robot will be working in extreme conditions, such as high or low temperatures, high humidity or high vibration levels, you must choose a robot that can withstand these conditions.

Like all electrical appliances, robots are assigned an ingress protection (IP) rating — another important consideration when choosing a robot. A robot’s IP rating is a quantification of how well it is protected against ingress of solid and liquid materials that could hinder its performance. If your robot will be working in a dusty environment, or submersed in liquid, it will need a very high IP rating.

Social Interaction

Introducing a new robot is sure to impact your staff. This is particularly noticeable when introducing collaborative robots, so companies must ensure staff are comfortable with the purchase.

Choose a robot that will integrate into your company’s culture. Humans are naturally sociable, so the ideal robot will interact with humans on a social level. However, developing robots that can empathise, comprehend colloquial slang and discuss topics unrelated to work is extremely challenging.

There are technologies that allow better communication between robots and humans, such as human-machine interfaces (HMIs) and programmable logic controllers (PLCs), allowing smoother collaboration and interaction. These technologies are not new and don’t have to be expensive. In fact, manufacturers can source reconditioned or even obsolete equipment to help break down the communication barrier.

You should ensure your company has the capacity to provide any training needed so that staff understand robot programming and operation and can follow safety standards like crush zones and access areas. The programming ability of your staff must be up to the challenge of a new robot, otherwise they will find it extremely difficult to operate the robot correctly.

Budget

Robots are unlikely to break down soon after purchase, but as time goes on the machines can wear and break. In order to keep costs down, manufacturers should consider maintenance before purchasing a new robot.

It’s useful to know if the robot manufacturer or systems integrator that you’re purchasing from offers a preventative maintenance contract, whether this is 24/7 and what it includes. Knowing this in advance will minimise the risk of a breakdown and unexpected costs down the line.

Running costs will also depend on the expected use of a robot and power usage. Looking at the reliability and life span of the robot may help to guide you towards the best value for your application.

With careful thought and consideration, you can be sure to purchase a sofa that fits through your doorway and a robot that’s right for your business. Make sure you know exactly what the robot will need to be capable of, so that you can choose one with all of the required functionalities and qualities.

Jonathan Wilkins is marketing director of obsolete industrial parts supplier, EU Automation. EU Automation stocks and sells new, used, refurbished and obsolete industrial automation spares. Its global network of preferred partner warehouses, and wholly owned distribution centers, enables it to offer a unique service within the automation industry, spanning the entire globe. It provides worldwide express delivery on all products meaning it can supply any part, to any destination, at very short notice. Contact him at jonathan.wilkins@euautomation.com for more information.

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