Collaborative robots, also called cobots, are those that can be used alongside humans and are essentially safe. The simple fact is that cobots can do anything which a human can and they can be used just about anywhere that humans are used. In this article, we attempt to explain how to get started with using cobots if you have decided to automate your manufacturing or packaging processes.
Most SMEs are looking to improve their productivities and reduce costs. The business owners in this category think of automation. Cobots are but just one option in the automation superset. Reiterating the fact that humans can work along with robotic counterparts, there are a few points that you can keep in mind before buying your first (set of) collaborative robot(s).
Decide the processes that you want to automate
There are many areas in which you have to make thorough initial assessments with regard to where and how you are going to deploy the cobots. Identify the mechanical processes that you are planning to automate. Start with those points in your production line that currently experience bottlenecks. Identify the source of the problem. The next step is to perform an analysis to see if the bottleneck would be reduced or would disappear if the task is automated with a robot.
Then look into processes that require minimal changes in the production line. A hint here: jobs that are repetitive, highly risky, prone to errors, mundane and challenging in terms of reach and posture for the worker can be automated. It is important to assign the right tasks to the robots for the best results.
Avoid automating processes where on-the-spot thinking or a high level of dexterity is required. Pick-and-place actions and machine feeding operations are best automated. For these, you may need to make additional modifications. In such cases, make sure you do the costing properly. The correct changes will add more value to your business in the longer term.
Decide the Robot Specifications
The next step that you have to take is to decide what kind of cobots you need in your factory. What types of robots would meet your business requirements? Some factors to be considered for cobot shopping are briefly described below:
- Make a note of the maximum load that robots have to handle. This is important in deciding the type of robot.
- If your factory space is limited look out for cobots that are smaller in size and easy to install.
- Keep in mind the distance that the cobot will have to travel or reach out (height, depth, etc.). Accordingly, you may need 6-axis cobots or smaller models.
- The accuracy and repeatability of the robot have to be observed before purchase. The cobot that you purchase needs to have an optimum combination of the two for the best results.
- The cobots should offer easy programming options and should offer simple options like guiding the hand or gripper to teach different operations.
- It is important that you work in collaboration with the manufacturer to get your cobots customized to your exact requirements. The manufacturer would be able to guide you with what kind of grippers would suit your manufacturing/packaging facility the best. It is vital to use the courses and training tools that they offer and draw on this knowledge to the maximum capacity to extract optimum performance from the cobots. Learn the best practices from the manufacturers and distributors.
- Learn from peers who have successfully installed cobots and are gaining from them.
Tune your thinking to 24/7/365
Before you automate your mechanical processes it is vital that you tune your thinking to the 24/7/365 mode. Cobots do not need the afternoon lunchtime or teatime breaks. They can work overnight and do not need the lights on. Your production lines will be ‘on’ all of the time. There is a lot of planning that you will have to do in terms of handling different sizes of clients’ orders, the number of clients that you will want to service and vendor supply schedules.
Keep workers’ safety and morale in mind
It is important to understand that use of cobots help to preserve jobs and improve the quality of life of the workers. Robots increase production and get you the ROI early enough. However, it is also important to consider the safety of workers when they are working alongside robots. Many automation solutions recommend that fencing is used so that the robot functions within an enclosed space. In this context, it must be understood that costs increase with fences and manufacturing systems tend to become more rigid.
Employees are likely to be sceptical and, therefore, it is a good idea to take your workers into confidence and allow them to go through the recommended safety drills as recommended by the manufacturers. They should be fully equipped to handle cobots after their installation and manage their operations subsequently with a high level of confidence.
As an entrepreneur looking to speed up the ROI, you can examine automation solutions that use certified safety procedures wherein workers can be placed alongside cobots. These methods do not need safety fencing and would even allow the workers to substitute for the robots during downtime. Nevertheless, these are best done after a complete risk assessment as recommended by the robot manufacturers.
Lastly, cobots are not meant to put the humans out of work. They are built to handle the most mundane and error-prone tasks, leaving the humans to do tasks require more skill and cognition. In the end, it is all about successfully integrating technology that will serve to help your human staff who will find newer and better ways to work with cobots.
If you have decided to automate your manufacturing/packaging processes with cobots, you can rest assured that you will end up saving property cost, have increased production at the same time, add value to your business and grow it big enough to become the market leader in the long term.
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