In warehouses and in factories, one of the most common tasks is transporting goods. Studies have shown that many industrial operatives spend most of their day walking, pushing a cart, or driving industrial vehicles like forklifts. These activities represent a low value-added, and therefore are a good candidate for automation. Self-driving forklifts have become increasingly popular. Not only is there a benefit in reducing the labor required to transport goods, but there is also a question of safety.
Every year there are hundreds of deaths related to forklifts and thousands of injuries associated with this material handling equipment worldwide. Self-driving forklifts employ a variety of sensors that enable them to prevent accidents. Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) include not only larger autonomous vehicles like forklifts, but also smaller carts. Transporting goods from an order picker to a packing station is a common use for an AMR in a warehouse. Conveyor systems using moving belts or rotating cylinders have long been used for transporting goods within a facility. However, conveyor systems have limited flexibility, and it becomes quite expensive and time-consuming to reconfigure many conveyor systems. AMRs are extremely flexible because once they make a map of the facility, they can travel from one destination to the next, autonomously avoiding obstacles along the way.
Testing of medical samples, analyzing the chemical composition of liquids, and biological experimentation are three applications that require daily, repeated pipetting. Pipetting is the process of suctioning a small amount of liquid into a syringe and transferring precise quantities of the liquid into a second receptacle. Laboratory and medical technicians can spend hours daily performing pipetting. It is a repetitive and manual process, in which it is easy to make mistakes. Pharmaceutical companies need to dispense precise quantities of liquids into containers to produce eye drops, nasal sprays, and a large variety of liquid medications
Liquid-handling robots can automate these processes, resulting in higher throughput, greater accuracy, and improved traceability.
This is perhaps the most common application of robots in manufacturing. These robots can load and unload processing machines, take parts from a conveyor line and put them into totes or shipping containers, and sort parts from randomness to an ordered format.
This kind of robot is generally used when the number of variables is small. For example, the same kind of part comes down an assembly line, and it needs to be placed into a tray, or stacked, or ordered.
Because the variety of objects to be handled is kept small, the End-of-Arm-Tooling (EoAT) is more straightforward. In a manufacturing environment, the objects to be picked and placed have a predetermined size, shape, texture, and weight. Therefore, the kind of gripper the robot needs to use can be optimized for a particular item, and the gripping force of the robot can be more easily determined.
Machine tending robots insert workpieces into machine tools and remove the part after an operation has been completed. A typical cycle will involve a robot arm grabbing a blank part from a tray, inserting it into the machine, waiting for the operation to be complete, and then removing the finished part and placing it on the same tray, or perhaps a different one
There are several reasons to consider automating a machine tool. Machine tending and loading tend to be highly repetitive and monotonous. This means sometimes people don’t pay as close attention to what they’re doing as they should, and that contributes to the possibility of worker injuries. In addition, machine tending often involves exposure to poor working conditions, including dust, harmful fumes, and small airborne particles. Using a robot to attend a machine reduces or eliminates the risk of operator injury. In addition, the throughput of the operation can often be increased dramatically, with more repeatability, and higher quality.
Cutting material away from a “blank” piece and shaping it into a finished part using a milling machine is one of the most common and essential industrial operations. Milling machines have become increasingly more automated with the advent of CNC (computer numerical control) in the 1960s. Milling Robots take the CNC automation to the next level, allowing for automated tool changing and unattended operation. Using robotics to perform the milling can improve the precision and flexibility of the operation, reduce the number of defective parts, as well as improve safety for the workers. Enhancing work conditions can help in employee retention.
Manual drilling is taxing and often dangerous work. Robotic drilling offers higher precision and greater repeatability than manual drilling. Throughput is increased and workers are freed up to focus on more rewarding work. Milling and drilling are similar in that both involve End of Arm Tooling (EoAT) designed to remove material from a workpiece by rotating and cutting. Therefore, the two operations are sometimes combined into a single robot. The robot arm can automatically change tools to switch back and forth between milling and drilling. As an illustration of the flexibility of robotic drilling machines, consider the process of “tapping”. When working with metal, it is often required that spiral threading be added to the interior of the hole, called tapping. A drilling robot can drill the holes into a workpiece, change tools, and then carry out the tapping operation.
For many applications, laser cutting can represent a superior solution over mechanical cutting. Laser cutting offers a smaller chance of warping of the material, and precision can be improved because the laser beam that does the cutting does not grow dull with use.
Some materials are difficult or even impossible to cut without using lasers. Indeed, the first laser cutting machine used in production was to drill holes in diamond dies. As lasers have become more powerful, it has become possible for them to cut thicker materials. However, when it comes to cutting thick steel plates, for example, plasma cutting may still be a more cost-effective solution.
Plasma cutting evolved from plasma welding, starting in the 1960s. By the 1980s, it became an effective way to cut sheet metal and steel plates. Plasma cutting has advantages over more traditional, abrasive “metal on metal” methods. It does not produce metal chips and creates more accurate cuts with a cleaner edge. However, early plasma cutting machines were generally confined to cutting sheet material, as the CNC only allowed for movements in two directions. Robotic plasma cutting systems can offer six degrees of freedom movement, for very flexible operations, and the possibility of complex cuts.
Arc welding joins metal pieces together by using electricity to heat the metals to their melting point. When the melted metals cool, they are permanently joined, and the joint is airtight. Arc welding is flexible, allowing for flat sheets, tubes, and rods to be joined together, and the weld can be located anywhere along the surface of the workpiece. In addition, arc welding can be used with a variety of metals, including copper, aluminum, and copper alloys. Arc welding can be performed outdoors, in contrast to MIG welding.
Because the process involves high temperatures, the welder must wear eye protection, special gloves, and other protective gear. Many arc welding tasks can be automated using robotics, and robotic arc welding has been growing rapidly. Today, about 20% of industrial robotic welding applications are in arc welding. A robot arm performing arc welds means higher repeatability and accuracy. Using robot arc welding also reduces the risk of operator injury
Spot welding joins relatively thin steel objects together using electrodes that clamp the metals together and pass electricity through the workpieces. Spot welding is quick and joins two pieces of steel together uniformly and efficiently. It is often used in assembly-line production because it is cost-effective, energy-efficient, and fast. Spot welding cannot be used for thicker metal because it will not penetrate to form a solid bond
Robotic spot welding is commonly used in the automotive industry and results in greatly increased production speed, as well as higher repeatability and quality than manual welding. Worker safety is also improved
MIG (Metal Inert Gas) welding involves three elements: heat produced by electricity, an electrode that fills the joining area, and inert gas to temporarily shield the weld from the air. The electrode is a wire which is fed from a spool. The operator monitors the amount of the electrode used to join the two metals. This wire, or filler, is what bonds the two pieces together.
MIG welding is generally not performed outside, because any wind will interfere with the shielding effect of the inert gas. The process of MIG welding can be automated using robotics. Robotic MIG welding results in higher productivity and lower costs, as well as improved worker safety.
Laser welding uses a laser beam to join workpieces together. Unlike arc welding, which uses a filler to join two pieces of metal together, a laser weld creates a direct metal-to-metal bond. Laser welding results in a bond that is much cleaner than conventional arc welding. Arc welding can leave behind slag, which is the excess filler that has hardened around the weld and must be removed by grinding or filing. As a result, laser welding requires less processing afterward. Laser welding is not suitable for thick, heavy pieces, and not all kinds of metal can be joined using laser welding. However, MIG welding and laser welding can be combined into a laser hybrid system that can overcome this limitation. Laser welding lends itself well to automation because the width of the laser beam, the depth of penetration into the workpiece, and the path and speed of the beam can all be precisely controlled.
Deburring removes unwanted material from a workpiece, usually by specially formed, rotating bits. Typically, the workpiece is stationary in a deburring operation, and the deburring machine moves around the part. Manual deburring is repetitive, monotonous, and tiring. Deburring robots do not tire and are faster, more precise, and more repeatable than manual deburring.
Industrial grinding operations remove excess or unwanted material from a part. In most grinding applications, the grinding machine is stationary, and the part or workpiece is moved, touching the grinding surface at various angles and with appropriate pressure to bring about the desired results. Robot arms perform grinding operations repeatably, accurately, and tirelessly.
Polishing operations create smooth or shiny surfaces. Sometimes the polishing process uses a soft cloth or polishing disc, for example polishing a smooth metal or plastic piece. In other cases, materials such as glass and stone are polished using an abrasive material that might start with a coarse grain, and progress to finer ones. Robotic polishing can precisely measure the force applied, and repeat motions with great accuracy, giving consistent and high-quality results
New entries in the field of painting robotics include robots that can be used in construction or home renovation projects. Some are battery-powered and designed to work in new construction for painting walls, while others rely on an external power source and are supplied with paint through a hose. Robotic painting is as much as 30 times faster than manual painting, with more consistent results. Construction painting robots can be used to reduce costs in painting higher buildings by eliminating the need for scaffolding. These robots use suction to climb the wall of the structure and can either spray or use a brush or roller.
Industrial painting robots have been used for decades in automotive manufacturing. These early robotic painters were hydraulic, which made them heavy and expensive. Modern painting robots are lighter and lower cost, and therefore accessible even for relatively small organizations. Industrial painting robots can maintain a precise distance between the spray-head and the workpiece, as well as the speed with which the spray nozzle travels, both of which are critical to avoid runs and drips. Accurate regulation of pressure and flow is important to maintain consistent results. All of which is done by industrial painting robots, giving a high-quality result.
A wide variety of coatings are used in industrial processes, ranging from protective to decorative. Some coatings impart special properties, such as electrical resistance, a non-slip surface, or conversely a non-stick surface. Generally, these coating processes can be automated with robotics because the robotic movement can be precisely controlled. Robots offer consistency, accuracy, and speed advantages over manual processes. Some additional kinds of robots that fall into the category of Finishing & Sanding include robots that are used with abrasive belts, abrasive blasting, magnetic field-assisted finishing, sandblasting, burnishing, lapping, sharpening, vibratory finishing, electroplating, and spindle finishing.
Packing food orders is an area of rapid growth, and robots are increasingly capable of gently handling even produce and perishable items. Packaging robots can create multiple sizes of boxes automatically according to need. As an example of one application, packaging robots can automatically place large wire spools into boxes, with a bottom plastic shipping cap inserted first, and a top cap installed last, and then the box can be sealed and then labeled for shipment. These are just a few examples of the many possibilities of packaging robots.
Palletizing robots can stack boxes and containers onto a pallet in an optimized way. If there are a variety of different items in the boxes, artificial intelligence can be used so that the heavier containers are placed on the bottom. The boxes can be oriented in such a way as to maximize the number of boxes that will fit onto the pallet. Shrinkwrapping the entire pallet with plastic to stabilize it for transportation can also be automated with palletizing robots. Some additional kinds of robots that fall into the category of Packing & Palletizing include robots that are used in case erecting, depalletizing, labeling, anti-corrosive packaging, and Pharma packaging.
When combined with a six-axis robotic arm in a factory environment, a camera can be positioned to see parts from any desired angle. The existence of cracks, the measurement of dimensions, and the uniformity of coating are only a few of the properties that can be inspected using vision robots. There are inspection robots that can travel down a pipeline for the oil and gas industry, and underwater robots for inspecting oil rigs and salvage operations. There are aerial drones for inspecting rooftops and other high places. Some inspection robots do not use vision. These robots might use a special End of Arm Tooling (EoAT) to measure dimensions or electrical resistance, to name but a few of the many possibilities.