Following advancements in technology and artificial intelligence in the last few decades, the use of robots has exploded in all industries. Robotics have been fully incorporated in manufacturing and currently make up almost 50% of the workforce in many factories in developed countries.
A robot is a machine programmed to carry out specific tasks. It can work tirelessly and with precision, without requiring significant oversight. Robots can also carry out dangerous tasks without the risk of injury, when compared to humans. These advantages place robots ahead of humans in the workforce, hence their increase in production lines across industries.
Robots are used in manufacturing processes in various capacities;
- Material Handling
Lifting and offloading material in a factory is a tedious and sometimes, dangerous job. A robot is able to lift, transfer and drop the materials in a production line, continuously. An automated robot can lift more than 1,000 kg of material at one go and can do it endlessly.
For handling of delicate material, delta robots, which have spider-like linkages, are used to move these items along a production line with speed.
Palletization refers to the act of placing goods or products onto a pallet for convenient packaging or storage. Palletizing of goods enables the product to be safely transported and improves inventory taking.
A robot can palletize all shapes and sizes of goods, whether they are in cases, drums or boxes. The robotic system can work on palletizing goods continuously and because of its precision in stacking the pallets, it eventually optimizes on the use of storage space. The use of robotics in this aspect also reduces the risk of injury to humans, who may not be able to bend and lift heavy items continuously.
- Automated work cells
In manufacturing with robots, a cell refers to arranged items or processes in a production line. The robots are placed in close proximity and can carry out sequential tasks seamlessly. Robots can create automated work cells, meaning that processes will be more streamlined and efficient. Less wastage and downtime is another advantage of automated cells.
Automated cells are used in metal sheet handling and bending, polishing and plastic injection molding.
Common robots used in automated cells are the articulated robots, which have a robotic arm with multiple joints, and selective compliance assembly robot arm (SCARA) robots. The SCARA robot has two arms joined at their base and can move laterally. Articulated robots have a wider range of motion while SCARA robots, while limited in movement, are faster and more accurate.
Robots can put together various components to create the end product of a production line. This is known as assembly.
Using integrated vision systems and force sensors, an assembly robot can detect different parts, pick them up and insert them in their respective places. The precision with which robotics carry out assembly is uncanny and rarely with errors. Robotics also work at a high speed and can handle intricate parts that may be too sensitive for human hands to handle.
In the modern world, medical devices, household appliances, pumps and automotive parts are assembled almost exclusively using robots. Articulated arms and SCARA robots are commonly used in assembly automation.
Automation of inspection systems is a task for robots, as it can sometimes be dirty and dangerous to human beings. A robot can be fitted with visual systems, such as cameras, ultrasonic sensors and magnetic systems and deployed to an area in the manufacturing unit that is too dark or too small for a human being to fit. The robot is able to take information on-site, detect anomalies such as leakages, erosion or corrosion and relay this information to human inspection officers, who can then take corrective measures.
Inspection robots are used in pharmaceutical manufacturing to maintain the high quality of medical products. These robots require less time than humans to perform inspections and lead to improved data analytics, since information collected can be used in real time.
Aerial inspection of manufacturing facilities can also be carried out by robots (both remote and unmanned robotics), therefore improving overall facility inspection of pipes, storage tanks and support structures.
- Material removal
Material removal in manufacturing includes applications such as cutting, sanding, grinding and trimming, used to remove excess material from a product or surface. In humans, acquiring these skills requires time and high precision. Material removal robots are efficient and can be programmed to handle the harsh processes such as steel grinding, as well as the delicate polishing of a metal.
The robot is able to repeatedly perform the task with consistent energy. The end result is of higher quality than a human hand would produce. The use of robotics also protects the health and safety of machine operators, who would otherwise be exposed to fumes, dust and repetitive vibrations created by regular machines carrying out the above processes. Robotics in material removal processes also eliminates the need to hire persons with these highly sought-after skills. Six axis robots are commonly used in material removal.
- Material Transportation
The movement of material within a manufacturing plant is vital. The use of robotics in transportation has been leveraged in manufacturing, resulting in more efficient and cost-effective processes. Automated guided vehicles (AVGs) can move heavy material around the factory seamlessly and without human intervention.
Robotic transportation units (RTUs) can be deployed to move another smaller robotic arm between cells, thereby decreasing the number of machines required. Robotic forklifts can be used to lift and move pallets within the industrial unit.
Mobile robots are also incorporated into warehouse management systems and programmed to collect, transport and deliver materials using certain routes on the floor of the factory. They have sensors incorporated into them to prevent collisions with equipment and workers.
Dispensing of material such as adhesives, sealants, inks and concrete is a sensitive manufacturing process that requires speed and precision. Dispensing robotics ensures that the correct amount of product is delivered to the exact assigned area, at the exact time. This consistency ensures that the end product is of high quality.
Robotic dispensing also minimizes on wastage of material and ensures that the production line has a higher output. The SCARA robot is commonly used in the dispensing processes of manufacturing. Cartesian robots, which have a rigid structure and can be placed on benchtops, are also used in dispensing robotics.
Advantages of robotics in manufacturing
Robotics have clearly improved inline and batch processes in manufacturing. The use of robots has cut the cost of human resources and eliminated the need for downtime in production lines. Robots have also reduced wastage of material and have increased the productivity of most manufacturing processes.
Limitations of robotics
The application of robotics to manufacturing has some limitations;
- Robots and robot-assisted systems require a constant power source in order to function
- Robots require regular maintenance and programming. Furthermore, only highly skilled individuals can carry out these functions.
- The cost of buying the robots is astronomical and requires a heavy, initial investment
- A robot cannot handle situations that require creativity or adaptability. It can only carry out tasks it was programmed to do.
The implementation of robotics in all industries continues, as technology advances and competition increases. With technology improvement, more limitations to their use in manufacturing will be eliminated and more manufacturing processes will rely on robotics, rather than humans.