Cobots being involved in machine tending takes a scenario where 4 humans are loading and unloading their machines all day, and turns it to a situation where one human could oversee 4 cobots picking and placing the items into those machines. This is why machine tending is one of the fastest growing areas of cobot automation. Not only is it likely a more rewarding job for the operator, but it creates consistency in process and quality.
Because collaborative robots are only a few years in existence, let's talk about some of the misconceptions with machine tending and cobots in general.
"It's a futuristic concept that is still years out"
We're already there! We're seeing companies of all shapes and sizes adopting this technology. The technology is there, and rapidly evolving.
"It's not for job shops"
Although job shops do have high-mix low-volume, there's still likely a good bit of continuity in different batches of parts that can be taken and placed into the machines. Generally it's just a matter of selecting the right gripper combination (like OnRobot's dual gripper)
"We need an entire automation cell to get started"
This is usually incorrect, as we've seen many manufacturers start small with one cobot and dip their toes in. That allows them to ease their way into it and see a faster ROI.
How To Identify An Opportunity For Cobot Automation
"If you can do it blindfolded, with one hand behind your back, with an oven mitt on the other hand, then that is a GREAT application to start with."
Let's talk about how to get started when looking for something to automate. The quote above summarizes the search process well. If it's not overly complicated then you can get your feet wet and we can show you how to make money in the process. Below is a good list of descriptors for some tasks that you'll likely find in your facility.
Processes with dedicated tooling and repetitive work
If the process has dedicated tooling, it's likely a great candidate. A repetitive process will yield a quicker return on investment, without as many variables floating around.
Batch work (as discussed above)
We'll say it again...Although job shops do have high-mix low-volume, there's still likely a good bit of continuity in different batches of parts that can be taken and placed into the machines. Generally it's just a matter of selecting the right gripper combination (like OnRobot's dual gripper)
The 3 D's: Dangerous, Dirty, and Dull.
Some examples of these tasks would be deburring, degreasing, sanding, polishing, or welding (especially simple and repetitive welding)
A pitfall that many companies fall into is wanting to start with the most complicated activities in the manufacturing process. The reality is we CAN do that, but it comes at a cost of both time and money. Now we can certainly make those cells work, but the reason we don't recommend that to companies who are automating for the first time is because of the time it takes to implement and dosing the solution, and the cost that comes with that time and hardware. Going that route more often than not creates a huge barrier to entry in automation.
Three Best Practices to Consider
Now, back to the actual title of this article... we have some pointers for getting started with cobotics in machine tending:
1. Start with a proven manufacturing process. Something you've been doing for a while, have a complete understanding of your work holding, have an optimized program, you understand tool life, and you understand that part completely. The more profitable that part is, the quicker the ROI will be.
2. Have someone available that can take ownership of the system. Someone who is dedicated and has it on their agenda.. Example: once a day, for one hour, they're going to do the work necessary.
3. Make sure you're partnering with the right company. It's important to get off on the right foot so that you don't get a bad taste in your mouth with automation.