Robots, cobots, pneumatics, and the future
At the National Fluid Power Association’s recent International Economic Outlook Conference, Donna Ritson of DDR Communications shared results of an industry survey done for PMMI that looks at the future of robots and cobots for automation.
Ritson’s firm had discussions with the leading robot manufacturers, robot suppliers, and integrators in the industry to get their perspectives on the role of pneumatics in robots and cobots. The survey included industries such as food, beverage, personal care, pharma, medical devices, household products, and agriculture.
“We really covered the gamut because they’re all using robots and cobots,” she said. “We talked to large companies — those are your leaders, your early adopters — as well as medium-sized and smaller companies. Everyone is looking at this, with the number one reason being lack of labor. That’s not old news, it’s continuing news.”
Ritson said that the main challenge for integrating robots and cobots lies in the questions of:
• Where do I put them?
• Where can I improve my productivity?
• Where can we add the best efficiency?
Companies are really looking for application identification. When they’re going to add a robot or cobot, they’re clearly expecting things to improve. Users almost unanimously want to cut back on repetitive tasks to reduce labor, increase speed and productivity, achieve more throughput, maintain higher levels of quality, achieve consistent handling, and improve operator safety.
“If you can have a robot do a hazardous job, then that will improve your worker safety as well,” Ritson said. “And minimize waste and human error. Robots can be programmed to do the same thing over and over — far better than humans.”
Pneumatics gets in the game
Robot experts listed the benefits of pneumatics on end of arm tooling as being cost effective, easier to use, simpler to troubleshoot, lightweight, and powerful.
“Pneumatics are a key component in robotic end effectors, and not necessarily just for the typical applications of gripping or holding something or moving something,” she said. “They are also being used as a driving tool, a welding tool, a boring tool — things that aren’t your typical lift, move, handle applications.”
Ritson identified some hurdles for companies adopting more automation than they already have as being a lack of engineers on staff, not enough floor space, not having the technology to do proper troubleshooting, or simply not having the right application.
With pneumatics specifically, there’s also the question of the availability of compressed air in the facility. Robots may be placed in a part of a facility where the air isn’t available. And some companies’ engineering staff s may have more familiarity with electrics than pneumatics, so education becomes critical.
It’s important to remember that application complexity and accuracy are what’s driving the actuation choice between pneumatics versus a servo electric solution. Robotics experts told Ritson that the benefits of pneumatics are simple: sequential operations, pick-and-place applications, and safe operating modes.
“If it’s simple pick and place, then it’s a good fit for pneumatics,” Ritson explained. “For motor and electric applications, there’s energy savings that they’re looking for. If it’s got a sophisticated motion path, it’s teachable or guidable, these are all applications where they’re selecting the electric option.”
“The questions to ask your customers are, ‘Is the task repetitive? What kind of application? Does it require high accuracy? What type of an environment is it in? What operator level is in your plant now? Where are you starting at, from a level of knowledge? And what other areas of operation is this going to impact in the future?’” she said.
Ritson mentioned that COVID is still driving a lot of decisions and changes in manufacturing.
“In general, it’s driving more automation. In an independent study we conducted, about a third of the people participating had already implemented robots and cobots in new technology,” she said.
Robot experts are also looking for functional improvements that are needed for the greater adoption of pneumatics in robots and cobots, such as the ability to move heavier objects and more seamless integration of the pneumatic controls.
“We’re talking about less programming and more teachable operations, and integration of those pneumatic controls into the cobot, the regulators and the valves, the feedback loops to achieve a more plug and play compatibility,” she said. “And plug and play is something that we definitely hear about; it is desirable because that decreases the need for programming. The industry is looking for a broader range of solutions from pneumatics and cobots and robots.”
From a spending perspective, Ritson’s data shows that more than half of the companies surveyed are planning to spend more in the next decade on robots, cobots, and automation than they had in the past 10 years. The spending level is increasing — they know they need this type of automation, as labor will remain difficult to find.
“Companies are expecting their suppliers to provide a solid business case,” she said. “They’re saying, ‘Give us the reasons why robots and cobots will help us improve our operations.’ You may have to conduct a plant audit, go into their facilities, and help them find the applications that they need to improve. Where is labor lacking and how can automation be part of that?”
Paul J. Heney
VP, Editorial Director
On Twitter @wtwh_paulheney
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