What is Flexible Automation?
Flexible Automation is a concept that allows a production cell to be re-tasked quickly and easily. This allows for multiple automation processes while requiring minimal change over. The main challenge has been dealing with parts that are difficult to feed and those with high mix / low volume. Traditionally, automation has been cost prohibitive for many of these applications.
Investing in automation with Redeployable Assets now makes these applications feasible. Grouping key components together typically proves for a very fast return on investment. Risk is reduced as these components can be deployed to other automation tasks with minimal effort.
What's in a Flexible Automation Cell?
The contents of a flexible automation cell are pretty simple. It boils down to to four main components that allow the cell to receive, sense, and manipulate the desired object.
The feeder is a device that consistently presents the object(s) to the robot for manipulation. They come in many forms, but for a flexible cell then the best route is a feeder that works on a large variety of parts.. Take a look at the Asyril feeder below and see how it is able to present a wide variety of parts to the robot with minimal operator interference. You can learn more about Asyril here.
The purpose of the vision system in a flex cell will depend on the application, but generally speaking it will send coordinates to the robot and/or inspect the parts for programmable criteria. In the video below you can see how OnRobot Eyes are used to identify and sort different parts. You can learn more about OnRobot here.
Once the coordinates of the target part are received by the robot, the robot will move to manipulate the part. Depending on the robot brand and end of arm tooling, this can be done in a variety of ways. The most flexible type of robot is a 6 or 7 axis arm, and you can find these in either Industrial or Collaborative models.
In the video below you can see one of the newest robots on the market, Kassow Robots, being used in a collaborative environment. You can learn more about Kassow Robots here.
End of arm tooling are devices that are attached to end of your robotic arm. They are designed and used to act as robot wrists that interact with the environment. These can come in the form of a simple gripper, a screwdriver, a magnet, or a sander. A very popular company for end of arm tooling choices is OnRobot, who has a lineup of grippers that are made to be easily interchangeable for when your production needs change.
Take a look at the magnetic gripper below being used for a variety of applications
Why use Flexible Automation?
The key words are re-deployable assets. Being able to adapt and re-task on the fly allows you to keep production cost fixed regardless of whether you are running small or large batches.
If you look at the graph below, you can see the value that a flexible solution brings when compared to traditional fixed automation or manual solutions. If you look at the Return on Investment for a fixed solution, it only makes sense for when your facility manufactures the same part over and over again. Once your production goes to medium/high mix, then manual labor comes out on top. This is something that has kept many facilities from automating in the past.
However, given the past year and the extreme labor sourcing issues that many manufacturers are facing, the manual "solution" becomes less and less feasible. But with flexible automation, you can keep your costs reduced and have a much quicker return on investment while also preparing your company for any future pivots.