Cobot Machine Tending Delivers Bottom Line Benefits

Forty years ago, factory automation was all about getting labor out, replacing operators, welders and assembly line workers with robots. Today that equation is as antiquated as a horse and buggy. Today the focus is on boosting productivity and increasing flexibility on the floor to produce more products quicker.

What changed? The labor crisis in manufacturing has had a profound impact on factories large and small, as companies struggle to fill job openings and retain their current employees. Today the challenge is to increase production with a limited pool of skilled workers who want a career in manufacturing.

Collaborative automation is best targeted at DDD applications – Dull, Dirty or Dangerous. These are the toughest positions to fill and have high turnover rates due to low job satisfaction.  The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a 6.2% turnover rate in manufacturing in 2022, and 550,000 active job openings in July 2023.  A 2021 study by Parsable of frontline manufacturing workers in the US, Germany, France, Spain and the UK revealed that 45% would leave their current employer if given the opportunity to work in a more modern, digital environment.  And that figure jumps to 55% in the 18-24 age bracket.  Unfortunately, the manufacturing labor challenge is not going away.

How Can Cobot Automation Help?

How Can Cobot Automation Help?

Let’s look at one application segment: Machine Tending, the loading and unloading of CNC machine tools, die casters, additive manufacturing machines, quality testers, assembly machines and more.  These are jobs that are highly repetitive and monotonous by nature, smack in the middle of the Dull category. Deploying a collaborative robot can have an immediate impact increasing efficiencies and productivity, while allowing operators to be more flexible in their value-added tasks. While each shop or factory is unique, there are some benefits that are common throughout the industry.

Putting Idle Machines Back to Work

The worst-case scenario is when a machine sits idle due to a lack of manufacturing labor to manually load and unload. Lost production capacity impacts top line revenue, and in some cases threatens customer relationships as lead times slip out and delivery dates are missed. In the worst case, companies turn down new business and orders from established customers due to the reduced capacity.  And compounding the pain, the idle machine continues to depreciate, takes up floor space, and may impact cash flow with interest expense.

Automating an idle machine has an immediate impact, as production volumes increase the top line revenue and the resulting contribution margin, while often reducing overtime expenses. It’s important to remember that cobot automation does not have to be limited to a 1 robot / 1 machine configuration.  Depending on the shop layout and typical takt times, a single cobot can support 2 or even 3 machines.

ur20 machine tending reach

Turning Machine Loaders into Cell Operators

Automated machine tending allows a redefinition of the role of the machine loader job. Instead of simply supporting a single machine, the machine loader can support 2 or more machines, keeping blank parts staging area full, doing quality checks and measurements, and moving finished parts on to the next process step. Cross training and upskilling can allow loaders to become CNC programmers and job setters, far more attractive roles. This increases the overall efficiencies and productivity in the plant, both reducing costs and improving job satisfaction.

It's difficult to find skilled workers. You have to make sure to keep the ones you have. By having the cobots of Universal Robots take on boring and exhausting tasks, I can offer my employees more interesting fields of activity and more responsibility

Lucien Heemskerk, Owner and Technical Director Heemskerk Fijnmechanica B.V., South Holland, Netherlands

Read about the Heemskerk Fijnmechanica B.V. case story here

Full Shift Operations

Cobot automation will improve productivity over a full shift. Manual machine tending means production stops during breaks, lunch, and promptly at the end of shift. Continued operation during two 15-minute breaks and a 30 minute lunch break per day will increase production by 12.5% over an 8 hour shift.

Extending Production Hours

Second and third shift operations are extremely difficult to staff, as well as increasing physical and psychological problems. And they generate considerable overhead, even for a small skeleton staff, as support and supervisory resources are required on-site. Cobot automation, in combination with flexible parts magazines, can allow un-manned operation after the close of the normal day shift, for a few hours or a complete shift. Operators simply load the parts magazines with blanks at the end of their shift and return to trays of completed parts the next morning.

The nice thing about the cobot is that the employees see it as a colleague. When they finish work in the afternoon, they simply hand over the remaining orders to the robot, which then completes them overnight. Who doesn't like such a colleague?

Andreas Flieher – Managing Director, Endutec GmbH, Germany
Flexible parts magazine at New England Union, Rhode Island USA
Flexible parts magazine at New England Union, Rhode Island USA

Reducing Quality Defects

Operators are challenged to load blank parts consistently throughout an 8-hour shift, as boredom and the monotonous nature of the job take their toll. Parts that are only slightly mis-aligned or improperly seated generate scrap that directly impacts the bottom line. Cobot automation is precise and repeatable cycle after cycle, and built-in force sensing on the UR cobots can further ensure blanks are aligned and properly seated.

The quality increase we have achieved thanks to the Universal Robots cobots is incredible. We haven't had a bad part since we started using them. This enables us to guarantee our customers high-quality products, now and in the future.

Daniel Waltle – Managing Director, Jenny | Waltle GmbH, Austria

Read about the Jenny | Waltle GmbH case story here

Soft (But Very Real) Benefits

Hiring in the manufacturing sector is a challenge around the world, as younger generations are not attracted to the traditional view of a factory: Dull, Dirty and Dangerous. And workers who are stuck standing all day in front of a machine, loading and unloading parts are at high risk of turnover. Cobot automation can help turn those perceptions around, by giving current employees a sense of ownership over the process and advancing their job skills. And prospective employees see the advantages as well.  Working with robots, not like robots, is far more attractive than the alternative.

Low risk, rapid deployment cobot machine tending solutions from Universal Robots and our partners – to get started, go to the machine tending page on the UR website and download our Guide to Machine Tending.

Automation for anyone. Anywhere.

Automation for anyone. Anywhere.

Universal Robots

We believe that collaborative robotic technology can be used to benefit all aspects of task-based businesses – no matter what their size.

We believe that the latest collaborative robot technology should be available to all businesses. The nominal investment cost is quickly recovered as our robotic arms have an average payback period of just six months.

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