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Industrial Robotics

April 2014

When is a Robot a Good Idea in Automation?

Rachel Greenberg writes technical articles for Automation GT in Carlsbad, CA.

It has become apparent to us at Automation GT that many of our customers don’t even realize that we are fully certified to incorporate robotics parts in any of our automation designs. In fact, if you are interested in integrating robotics into a new or existing automated system, it is a great choice to partner with a company like Automation GT for these projects, rather than a company that specializes solely in robotics. Because we have a thorough knowledge of how your whole automated system should work, we are best-equipped to make key decisions on how and when to implement robotics with your machinery.

Robots can be of great value in many automated systems, but it can often be confusing to people to determine when it is best to incorporate a robot. In some cases, investing early on in a robot will lead to a quick return on investment, but in other cases, the initial cost of a robot is not worth it. Here is a brief guideline to help you understand how engineers make the decision to include a robot in a design.


Mechanical Factors

The first reasons to consider robotics are mechanical reasons. This means that, if your engineer sees any of the following flags when working on your design, he or she will likely decide that a robot would greatly simplify the mechanical operations of your system.

  1. Does your system require three or more axes of movement? If your automated system will require an element to go in more than just two directions, a robot may be a great substitute for other possible design choices. You could manufacture something from scratch that could accomplish the same task, but at this point it becomes much more cost effective to buy a ready-made robot for just this purpose.
  2. Does your system require rotational freedom?  This is a similar consideration to the first: do you need a component in your system that can reach in multiple directions or rotate pieces easily? For example, if you were assembling a product that required polishing on two opposite faces, would it make more sense to have a robotic arm that could quickly flip the piece to accomplish both steps at once. Many robots were designed specifically to rotate pieces in this way, meaning that an inclusion of a robot at this step will likely save you time and money.
  3. Will your system require a three dimensional solution? If in your system you will need an element that can perform a task that requires three dimensional movement (for example, maybe you need to be able to retrieve an item from a shelf and move it to a conveyor belt on the other side of the room), the use of a robot is a very efficient way to accomplish this task.


Software Factors

The software needs of your system determine the second set of factors involved in the decision-making process. It is relatively easy to integrate robots into many types of systems, and if as we develop your software plan we see any of these flags, we will likely recommend that you consider adding a robot to your system.

  1. Does it make sense to integrate a vision component in your system? Vision inspection systems and robotics go hand in hand. A robot with integrated vision will do a much better job of correcting for errors as it goes, making quick decisions, and catching mistakes in real time. If you are considering integrating a vision system into your machine, it may make sense to include a robot as the robot will be able to react right away to the problem detected through the vision system and correct mistakes as they occur.
  2. Will you be integrating your new machine with any processing equipment? It’s easy to integrate robots into material handling systems, and very frequently the installation of a robot in the early stages will save you money later on as it is easy to alter and adjust robots to adapt to changes in your processing system. Simply adapting a robot to deal with new challenges will be far less expensive than redesigning other components of the handling system later on.
  3. Does your system need to be able to perform any complex palletizing or de-palletizing actions? In many manufacturing processes, manufacturers will require automation systems that are capable of stacking and/or unstacking pallets. This is such a common need in many systems that manufacturers of industrial robots have developed out-of-the-box robots programmed to stack and unstack pallets. In some cases, the use of a robot in this capacity will save you from having to use complex software to achieve the same ends.
  4. Will your system involve any complex processing? When used with the correct software, robots can be easily adapted to a wide range of processes and functions. This means that one robot can be used for many steps in a process, or could be easily adapted to account for future changes in your process.


Flow of Operations Factors

The final factors in your decision should consider the future of your machine and your vision for your company. When developing your custom machine, you should give some thought to the possible future of your manufacturing needs, and how this machine will ultimately fit into your production process.

  1. What do you expect in terms of the lifespan of your machine? How important is future flexibility to you? Do you foresee eventual expansions, additions, or updates to your machinery as a possibility? If so, robots are particularly easy to adapt and change as your system evolves. Updating the functionality of a robot can be as simple as making a software upgrade.
  2. Do you foresee the possibility of ever dismantling or radically changing your machine? If so, robots are particularly easy to redeploy, reuse, or resell. If your assembly or production process changes dramatically, you can usually keep your robot and just alter its functioning or placement within your system. This will allow you to make your changes to your system without any financial loss or extra expense that you would otherwise incur from having to rebuild or redevelop your machine.
  3. Is there any possibility that you will at some point need to add steps and processes to the capabilities of your machine? It’s particularly easy to add steps without expanding your machine when working with a robot. Because robots have a wide range of reach, rotation, and functionality, you can add a step within one cabinet, rather than having to completely alter your system, or expanding your machine into a wider area.