Manufacturing AUTOMATION

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The rise of SME-friendly robotics

Advances in collaborative robotics are allowing manufacturers to deploy automation in finely targeted areas. This incremental approach is allowing SMEs to get into the game


An OnRobot gripper on a Universal Robots cobot. Photo: Universal Robots

A robotic arm that helps an operator polish speaker cabinets might not sound like much. What’s interesting is that this application typifies a trend that is driving a huge expansion of robotic deployment, particularly by SMEs.

The need for a finishing robot arose when Mississauga-based audio manufacturer Paradigm Electronics, which employs 250 across Canada, introduced a lacquer-finished speaker cabinet that requires multiple layers of finish and much sanding and polishing.

Facing a shortage of skilled workers, the company brought in Barrie-based integrator Advanced Motion & Controls to implement a Universal Robotics (UR) collaborative robot to work side-by-side with a skilled operator. The project, implemented in a little over a month, increased the throughput of the cell by 50 per cent and achieved a 14-month ROI.

Making room for cobots

Until recently, long deployment time, the need for programming skills and safety concerns would have made this project impractical. Today, the technology is opening up thousands of opportunities for SMEs in areas like machine tending, material handling, packaging, quality monitoring, routine welding and finishing.

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The difference has been the collaborative robot or cobot, which is designed, tested and certified to operate safely in proximity to human workers without fencing, safety guards or other intervening devices. This has made it much more practical, and economical, to introduce robotics in existing work environments.

“With traditional robotics, you couldn’t intermingle manual processes with automation, so you had to solve an entire problem from front to back,” says Joe Campbell, senior manager, strategic marketing and application development at UR.

The new approach makes it cost effective to automate work cells on a one-off basis, opening the door to SME adoption. “Companies like Ford and GM have been installing automation for four decades, whereas the average SME has been relying on manual labour on the manufacturing floor,” says Kristian Hulgard, general manager, Americas, for Odense, Denmark–based OnRobot.

The push for productivity

Canadian SME adoption lags the US, but the pandemic and a shortage of skilled workers have helped accelerate buy-in, according to Mike Daly, VP of sales, Canada and USA, at Montreal-based integrator Rotalec. “Collaborative is becoming very large, and I think in the next one to three years, it’s probably going to double or triple.”

Contrary to what many believe, the growth of robotics is not about eliminating people. A Statistics Canada study released last November linked robotic deployment with a modest increase in headcount. What the push is really about, the researchers found, is productivity.

Recent events have accentuated this trend. A Chicago-based company, under staffing pressures during the pandemic, brought in collaborative robots which allow an operator to handle three machines instead of one.

“Manufacturers are not thinking about a robot or a gripper or a camera,” says Hulgard. “They are thinking about the solution – does it solve my problem or not?”

“Now the operator does all the setup and programming, and the cobots do all the loading and unloading,” says Campbell. “So they immediately got themselves out of the labour headache that they were facing because they couldn’t they couldn’t hire enough people.”

The technology also helps increase output when there’s no opportunity to grow without adding floorspace. “A lot of these machine shops are landlocked, and they can’t expand,” says Campbell. “So if you squeeze more output out of that same footprint, that’s a significant win.”

A changing vendor landscape

The shift to smaller-scale incremental solutions is rapidly expanding available product options. OnRobot’s evolution since its founding in 2015 from a gripper manufacturer to a collaborative solution provider shows how rapidly the market is shifting.

“We initially focused on the CNC market,” says Hulgard, “but now, we supply so many products that CNC is only 12 per cent to 18 per cent of our total turnover.” Today, Hulgard notes, 70 per cent of the company’s business comes from SMEs.

Rapid-deployment software tools make it easier to build solutions – perhaps a gripper, robot and mobile cart combination – in a modular fashion and align them with existing machine tools.

“Everything boils down to minimizing deployment time,” says Hulgard, “and one of the ways you can do this is by making plug and play products to complement the robot. And I’m not only talking about tools. It can be sensors, it can be cameras, it can be conveyors, it can be safety features around the robot – anything that needs that complements the robot in that application has to be plug and play.”

Thanks to rapid deployment, Daly is seeing ROI of six to eight months on projects in his customer base. “It’s fairly quick, because implementation time is only two to four weeks,” he says, “and more importantly, it’s flexible, so it can be used for multiple applications [that] you can program in house. There also isn’t the high safety investment that you needed with industrial robotics.”

As robotic solutions become more granular, an ecosystem of vendors and integrators is emerging. In February, UR launched a virtual cobot expo focusing on machine tending.

The portal allows visitors to browse virtual booths and examine dozens of software tools and gadgets including mobile multi-drawer parts cabinets, loading and unloading systems, automatic vices for CNC machines, and ready-made interfaces for common machine tools.

Closing the skills gap

As is the case with IT, SMEs tend to operate with limited technical staff and rely on vendors to provide complete solutions. “Manufacturers are not thinking about a robot or a gripper or a camera,” says Hulgard. “They are thinking about the solution – does it solve my problem or not?”

Accordingly, Canadian resellers are assuming a larger role. Rotalec, for example, maintains a staff of technical sales reps, robotic application specialists and design engineers.

Colleges and universities are also adapting their programs to support the new technology. Neal Mohammed, director of the Barrett Centre for Technology Innovation at Humber College, says the school’s Engineering Technology program offers robotics training.

The training is also being deployed to the college’s continuing education programs for industry workers looking to reskill. “We’re going to see more and more of these robots taking an important role, especially in SMEs,” he predicts.

Jacob Stoller is a journalist and author who writes about Lean, information technology and finance.

This article appears in the May issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.