Globalization and eCommerce have hit manufacturers with unprecedented demands for high-mix, low-volume production that can change course on a whim – the whim of the customer.
Today’s customers want products that suit their needs perfectly. In the food and beverage industry, this means offering a variety of meal sizes and swapping in various snack box components. In consumer electronics, people are asking for variations in housing colors, processing speeds and memory.
To keep up, manufacturers need to embrace flexibility– and robotics is one of the best ways to do so. Robots are reusable, re-deployable assets that can change their programs on the fly, making production line changes easier and quicker.
Let’s take a look at three key ways manufacturers can harness the power of robotics to boost operational flexibility.
Once upon a time, when companies would happily dedicate an entire line to a single product type, high-speed robots did most of the work. These robots were great for enhancing throughput, but they weren’t flexible. They were too powerful and fast-moving for operators to safely re-deploy them for new tasks, and it was difficult to reprogram them when quick updates to the system were needed.
Recent advances in robotics include collaborative robots, which are designed to work in tandem with human operators. They don’t move as quickly as typical Delta and SCARA robots, but they adapt much more easily to new applications. When given the choice between lighting speed and flexibility, manufacturers see more value in flexibility for today’s challenges.
Collaborative robots adapt well because operators can “teach” them new tasks using a simple hand-guiding mechanism. The teaching functionality can be so intuitive that operators don’t need to consult robot programming experts. Collaborativerobots allow manufacturers to benefit from their workers’ creativity and expertise while preventing repetitive injuries.
HAVE A VISION
Robots become a much more flexible solution when they’re paired with vision. Built-in vision systems give robotic equipment the ability to adapt to multiple variations in products – different sizes, colors and shapes.
In the past, most robots didn’t use vision. They needed to be programmed to pick up specific, pre-determined items in very specific locations. Today’s vision-guided robots can find items through pattern recognition and then check colors, barcodes or other identifiers to determine what needs to be done next.
The old production lines were actually lines, and every work-in-progress would move directly from start to finish. Today’s flexible production lines often don’t resemble lines at all. Instead, they are modular systems that are constantly being rearranged.
This presents a new challenge – how can these modular systems stay connected while adapting to constantly changing production requirements? Conveyors are extremely difficult to move, and they can also block off hallways. If today’s hallway becomes tomorrow’s dead end, workers get lost and production slows down considerably.
Fortunately, an innovative robotic solution keeps hallways free amid the constant changeover of modular production lines. Mobile robots transport materials from one area to another using self-navigating technology. This saves manufacturers the headache of rearranging heavy conveyors to connect various production stages.
Using vision guidance with collaborative robots and employing mobile robots to transport materials across the factory floor can significantly boost a manufacturer’s ability to respond to changing needs while minimizing downtime and keeping production levels high.