What is industrial automation and why it is so important to success in today’s competitive manufacturing environment? In this article we’ll answer that question by exploring some of the advantages of industrial robots while providing practical examples of collaborative robots –a type of industrial automation -- in action.
What is the meaning of industrial automation?
In its broadest sense, ‘industrial automation’ refers to the hardware and software tools and associated control systems, that are used to replace or supplement human labor in industrial environments. Examples of automation typically found in manufacturing environments include traditional industrial robots, collaborative industrial robots and mobile robot platforms.
Machines can be used to automate specific jobs, but they don’t offer the same level of versatility and flexibility as robots. Simply put, robots are more flexible than machines. Typically defined as ‘general purpose manipulators that can be programmed and re-programmed to perform a wide variety of tasks,’ robots can be deployed on jobs from quality inspection and assembly to machine tending and palletizing.
Not all industrial robots are the same, however. Traditional robots are expensive, relatively static, have a large footprint, require extensive safety measures such as fencing, and programming the robot usually requires an expert robot engineer.
Collaborative robots (or ‘cobots’), which first came on the scene just over a decade ago with the launch of Universal Robots’ UR5 cobot, offer a different paradigm: affordable automation with a small footprint that is easy to deploy –and redeploy—on a wide range of tasks. Cobots are also highly mobile –they can easily be mounted on a mobile platform or lifted by dolly and moved to a different part of your facility as production schedules change.
Let’s take a closer look at the advantages of industrial automation engineering technology.
The advantages of using collaborative robots
We’re going to explore five main advantages of collaborative robots: safety, flexibility, uniformity, productivity, and affordability. As you’ll see shortly, these are all key reasons why companies across the globe are relying more and more on automated manufacturing that leverages the power of cobots.
One of the most innovative features of cobots, and a key differentiator between traditional industrial robots and collaborative robots, is that following a safety assessment cobots can be deployed right beside human workers without the need for special safety fencing. This reduces the overall cost of automation deployments while at the same time reducing worker injuries caused by repetitively performing the same tasks, such as assembly, packaging, sanding and screwdriving. Deploying cobots enables workers to be deployed on more ergonomic (and higher value) tasks, while at the same time removing the safety risks associated with traditional industrial automation.
Most factories will need to transform and update their processes over time. Whether due to increased production needs or a shift in how products are made or a change in the type of product being manufactured, these changes are almost inevitable.
Universal Robots’ collaborative robots, can be easily adapted to perform a wide variety of tasks, including assembly, dispensing, packaging, sanding, pick and place, welding, screwdriving, quality inspection and many others. Universal Robots cobots are engineered to be easily programmable by most manufacturing employee following completion of a simple online course, further adding to the flexibility of cobot-powered automation solutions.
When humans perform repetitive tasks, errors are inevitable as workers can get distracted and fatigued and it is extremely difficult (and unergonomic) for humans to perform the same physical task in exactly the same way over and over throughout a shift. Unfortunately, even the most minuscule of errors can have a significant impact on the quality of a product.
Cobots eliminate this problem because they can repeat the same process, over and over again, without deviation. There’s no easier way to improve the quality of a product that making sure it’s built exactly to specification at every instance. Traditional industrial robots offer reliability and consistency too but they are much more expensive and time-consuming to deploy than cobots.
Like their traditional robot counterparts, cobots are available 24/7 enabling busy manufacturers to increase production and, where necessary, to overcome labor shortages.
For example, Swiss kitchen manufacturer Franke, which manufactures more than 10,000 kitchen sinks per year, deployed a UR5 cobot to help with the repetitive, low-impact production task of dispensing glue. The deployment enabled Franke to free workers from strenuous, repetitive tasks, improve the operational efficiency of its production line and reduce material waste.
A UR5 cobot from Universal Robots enabled Swiss manufacturer Franke to improve productivity.
Universal Robots’ cobots are a fraction of the cost of traditional industrial robots, enabling manufacturers to enjoy the benefits of automation while achieving ROI quickly –typically in less than 12 months.
For example, B-Loony Ltd, a UK SME manufacturer of bespoke promotional products such as food flags, bunting and balloons, deployed six UR3 cobots for a range of tasks including sewing and product assembly in its UK facility. The cobots allowed B-Loony to increase production of food flags from 250,000 per year to 15 million per year. The increased productivity enabled B-Loony to achieve ROI for its cobot investments in just nine months.
Types of industrial automation
There are three main types of automated industrial technologies, each with their own capabilities and applications. Fixed automation refers to machines that are highly specialized. This kind of equipment, such as a conveyor belt, is meant to mechanize repetitive tasks. It’s typically very difficult – if not impossible – to move or repurpose.
Programmable automation, such as traditional industrial robots, are more adaptable, and companies can customize the robots to perform specific tasks. These machines can be reprogrammed; however, each instance can take weeks under the care of a robotics expert before it’s up and running.
Finally, there is truly flexible automation. Universal Robots’ cobots may not be as fast or as powerful as traditional industrial robots, but they are incredibly versatile and can easily be deployed –and redeployed—on a wide range of applications including machine tending, metrology, palletizing, assembly and more. Lightweight and highly mobile, our collaborative robots offer flexibility without the need for expert robot programmers and with a minimum of expensive downtime.
How does industrial automation work in practice?
The benefits of industrial automation technology can best be understood by looking at automation case studies. Let’s take a look at some examples:
Relieving workers from strenuous tasks
Assembly is a crucial step in production. Employees who work on assembly lines may suffer from both mental and physical strain. Repeated manual performance of tasks can lead to worker injury and, through human error, negatively impact production quality.
Our client SHAD was dealing with these issues as employees handled highly repetitive tasks in ergonomically-unfriendly positions. They deployed one of our UR5 cobots, to free human workers from repetitive tasks such as the assembly of plastic cargo boxes for motor cycles.
Lowering equipment downtime and improving employee satisfaction
Another client of Universal Robots, MT Solar, designs the mounting structures used for attaching solar panels to roofing. This job requires continuous welding of small pieces, and precision is massively important. They were struggling to find skilled welders and wanted to provide better opportunities to the machinists they already employed.
Not only has MT Solar been able to meet a 300% increase in demand by using our UR10e cobot, but they are no longer suffering from labor shortages. Cobots have taken over the physical task of welding. Meanwhile, skilled workers have been promoted within the company to tackle large-scale projects.
thyssenkrupp Bilstein is an Ohio-based manufacturer of high-tech suspension solutions for the automotive industry. Facing labor shortages, the company found it difficult to staff critical production tasks, including machine tending and quality inspection. Additionally, thyssenkrupp Bilstein wanted a flexible automated industrial system that could be redeployed frequently on different tasks, with minimum downtime.
Today, there are nine UR10 cobots working in thyssenkrupp Bilstein’s Ohio factory. The UR10s are involved in assembling Active Damping System (ADS) dampers, machine tending and quality inspection tasks. The deployment enabled thyssenkrupp Bilstein to expand its business without relying on hiring additional workers in an area with low unemployment. The company has also achieved 100% inspection of final part assembly.
UR cobot deployments at thyssenkrupp Bilstein. The deployment enabled thyssenkrupp Bilstein to expand its business without relying on hiring additional workers in an area with low unemployment.