With skilled labor shortages mounting and the likelihood of them only growing worse as more baby boomers retire and their jobs go unfilled, many in the metalworking industry are thinking beyond human beings as one solution to fill the skills gap.
But don’t sound the alarm just yet. The idea of robots replacing human workers has loomed large over the manufacturing industry for decades. As with many things, time will tell what role robots will play in the workforce. As of today, however, taking the place of people isn’t one of them. Particularly not for the next generation of collaborative robots, or cobots.
Historically, most sanding and deburring tasks are accomplished manually or by traditional industrial robots. These robots are rigidly mounted to a workcell purposed with a single task that it rapidly and consistently repeats for its entire life cycle.
Companies easily end up sinking significant sums of money into these automated workcells and must also invest in programmers, engineers and robot technicians to integrate and maintain the systems. These upfront and ongoing costs as well as a lack of flexibility in their use mean traditional robot technology is out of reach for many smaller shops and even larger firms that must be able to drive enough utilization from the cells to establish an ROI in a reasonable amount of time.
For this reason, many shops continue to use people for these tasks, which can be difficult not only for finding and replacing skilled workers, but limiting in terms of what humans can ergonomically handle.
The emergence of cobots, designed specifically to work alongside humans while also providing versatility, user friendliness, affordability and a small footprint, are redefining and reshaping the manufacturing industry. Cobots, such as those from Universal Robots, can be flexibly applied to several different tasks on the same day in a low-volume, high-mix job shop.
Due to their small size and built-in safety mechanisms, cobots can often be deployed in existing cells or production lines without bulky safety guarding (after conducting a risk assessment) and without expensive fixtures. For example, the first customer to deploy UR’s new heavy-payload cobot, the UR16e (16-kg/35-lbs. payload), was BWIndustrie in France using the cobot for deburring parts weighing from 4 kg to 12 kg.
Today, there are a myriad of ways cobots are driving major advancements in sanding and deburring. Here are just a few examples.
The cobot’s intuitive human-machine interface means that workers in a shop can assume the roles of robot programmers and technicians. Cobots can quickly go from installation to programming to running applications. Dozens of applications can be stored for one cobot, and creating a new program can be accomplished by simply moving the cobot arm through the desired motions.
All Axis Machining, a Texas machine shop, discovered collaborative robots when exploring conventional robotic options and were researching programming and operations capabilities specifically for operators with no prior experience. The company is not a high-volume shop and, therefore, needed quick changeovers between tools at the end of the robot arm and the ability to move the robot between machines to be tended.
The company was also not willing to give up more floor space that’s typically necessary for a traditional robot. Based on their easy integration through the controllers of old machines and the ability to teach the cobot different tasks through the cobot’s teach pendant, All Axis ultimately invested in UR’s cobots.
“We had an elderly operator doing the sanding, which requires a lot of muscle,” explains Gary Kuzmin, owner of All Axis Machining. One day, he was watching the operator on a monitor and saw the operator pick up the cobot’s teach pendant and start programming it to sand the part. “I’ve never been more proud to see one of our employees learn a brand-new technology. This is really empowering and is going to improve his whole lifestyle and earning capability, as well.”
Safety and Flexibility
Incredibly light for their size – with weight ranging from about 25 lbs. to 74 lbs. and reach from 25 in. to 51 in. – cobots can be mounted to floors, walls and ceilings and are easily carted around worksites by a single employee.
The same cobot can sand and deburr parts in the morning, tend a press brake in the afternoon and sort parts using a vision system overnight. The built-in safety feature that causes the robots to automatically stop operating when they encounter obstacles in their route is a “fundamental paradigm shift,” according to Stewart McMillan, CEO of Task Force Tips in Indiana.
“A major impediment in the past to using robots was the security fencing required around the machine,” he says. “The beautiful thing about the UR robot is you don’t need all the guarding. We can roll the table with the robot right up to the machine and in a few minutes teach the robot to load parts. They become a partner to the workers, going around the shop and helping them with the drudgery.
Corey Mack, the production supervisor at Task Force Tips, says that the company’s next application will likely be a deburring station within the CNC machine cell, and the company is testing the many application potentials.
“Right now, a worker has to Scotch-Brite a part or deburr a part by hand again and again, taking time away from something else they could be doing.”
Cobot App Store
Communication between UR cobots and end-of-arm-tooling (EOAT) is made possible through the UR+ platform, which can be thought of as an “app store” for cobot arms that enables cobot owners to easily automate applications with hundreds of third-party EOAT products approved to work seamlessly with UR cobots. Of note, a Dynabrade sander and Robotiq sanding kit are two of many UR+ certified application kits available for sanding and deburring tasks.
“We’re basically given this cookbook with an easy way to expand communication,” says Dave Perkowski, general manager at All Axis Machining. “From a technology perspective, it’s heaven to have all these capabilities and develop our current system and integration without any other assistance.”
Freeing up personnel from machine tending has also played an important role in increased productivity and part quality. With extra safety devices installed, such as safety mats or light curtains, a cobot can work faster than a human and then either stop or reduce speed once a person enters the work envelope. Even in applications that handle tasks at the same speed as an employee would, cobots do so consistently without stopping or slowing down over time, which typically increases productivity and quality.
Many companies using cobots have commented on the increased production they’ve experienced as well as the better parts they’re able to produce.
“Part quality has really gone to a whole new level with the UR robot in place,” Mack says, “all while allowing our personnel to come up with new ideas and better ways to improve our production.”
Mack also explains how cobots reduced staffing requirements from seven to three operators, which helped deliver a fast ROI.
“Now, it only takes about one hour per operator per shift to operate the robot, which includes laying out parts and staging the robot,” he says.
“That means the robot is running for 21 hours unassisted, so we’re looking at savings of just about 34 days to pay for the robot.”
Overall, cobots are gaining more and more traction in sanding and deburring operations, as they can reduce the number of human workers required for monotonous or injury-prone tasks and redeploy them into higher value jobs. With younger skilled workers looking for greater technology innovation, it could also make jobs more enticing and attract more to the industry, which will help significantly in bridging the skills gap everyone talks about.