Industry Market Trends

Robots Advance into Smaller Job Shops

Feb 13, 2003

Smarter and stronger than ever, robots are not just for the big boys anymore. Here's what their dramatic improvements mean for job shops of all sizes.

Robots have advanced so substantially that they're not only efficient but smart workers. And even as these machines' abilities skyrocket, their prices continue to fall because of recent technological innovations. Engineers can now make smaller robots for tighter welding operations because models are stronger than ever. And the larger units, such as those that maneuver diesel engines, can now manage payloads topping 1,000 pounds.

But while the usefulness of such machines is unquestionable, many manufacturers—especially small ones—are still reluctant to invest in them. Some are intimidated by the prospect of installation while others think that robots are options only for large operations.

"Small companies think that automation is for when they get bigger," says Craig Jennings, president of Ohio-based Motoman, Inc. and current president of the Robotic Industries Association. He says that most gainfully employed robots belong to companies with 350 or more workers.

Robots currently handle the manufacturing industry's most physically demanding jobs—usually lengthy, repetitive tasks such as welding and assembly. Robots are especially common in the automotive industry, where they spray paint parts and apply adhesives and sealants.

But with their rapid gain in IQ points, robots can now do some "thinking" along with the drudgery. Imbued with artificial intelligence, robots can figure out the best way to spray paint onto metal automotive parts. In addition, they can apply adhesives and sealants in just the right amounts and in the most optimal manner.

They also know how to prepare parts for the next operation. For example, Fanuc Robotics' I-21i can pick up haphazardly arranged parts from a bin and orient the parts for the next step. This means that it can place the parts correctly into another machine.

"The robot performs more like a human," says Kevin Ostby, president of Fanuc Robotics Canada and vice president of Fanuc's General Industries Division in Michigan. "The combination of 3-D vision and tactile force feedback make this possible."

Because vision systems give robots pattern recognition abilities, robots can adjust to some shifts in part placement. They don't have to be programmed with the exact location of objects nor the precise tolerances of parts. They simply have to sense where the object is and can then determine how to pick it up.

For example, by mating vision technologies with tactile sensing, robots can disengage parts from a machine tool and deburr them as needed before directing them to the next operation. "This was impossible before," says Ostby. "In the past, the operator had to find the part and orient it. Now the robot does it."

And installation is more seamless than ever. A few years ago, companies needed to spend as much as two weeks preparing a robot before it could perform tasks on its own. Now, with new software, a robot can tackle its duties almost immediately upon its delivery. "A computer simulates the robot's tasks before it even arrives at the shop," says Ostby.

Most importantly, robots can enhance the bottom line of job shops—even small ones. Small companies just have to look past the sticker price and consider its rapid return on investment (ROI).

"In the early 80s, entry-level robots averaged around $90,000," says Motoman's Jennings. "Today, prices list around $50,000." Even though particular applications can call for more than one machine, a company can typically see ROI in less than two years.

ROI can be even quicker if robots work multiple shifts. "Most people only consider the labor savings," says Jennings. "But, we must take into account the higher yield from fewer quality issues. A robot on a two-shift welding line could pay for itself in six months." This is also because a robot's cost stays constant whether it runs for one shift or three. Its value shoots up the more it works.

"Accuracy of robots comes into play when talking about ROI," says Ostby. "For instance, take a jet-engine part worth thousands of dollars. If a dent or scrape occurs toward the end of the line, it is a very costly mistake. But, during the third or fourth hour of a shift, a robot is not tired or distracted. Scrap reduction is a key component of calculating a robot's ROI."

Aside from their scrap reducing effect, robots also improve operations in numerous ways—boosting machine-tool utilization, improving part handling, reducing work in process and preventing employee injuries. Indeed, they can give small job shops a competitive edge.

"I've seen job shops with fewer than 15 employees buy one robot because they landed a particular account," says Jennings. "Now, when they bid on their next job, they can offer better cost per part than their competition."

And the future of robots is even more exciting. These artificial creatures are moving closer to their science fiction incarnations like Star Wars' C3PO and R2D2, says Rodney A. Brooks, director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge.

This means that manufacturers can look forward to machines that will require minimal programming, prove cost-effective in small-batch operations as well as long runs and possess social interaction skills that could transform production lines—though significant obstacles remain. These include giving robots object recognition abilities and human dexterity.

"My thesis is that in just 20 years the boundary between fantasy and reality will be rent asunder," writes Brooks in his latest book. "Just five years from now that boundary will be breached in ways that are as unimaginable to most people today as daily use of the World Wide Web was 10 years ago."

Sources: The Robot Evolution
Jill Jusko
Industry Week, Dec. 1, 2002

Online Exclusive – Robots: Making Them Work for You
Thomas Ferraioli, Jan. 1, 2003

In Search of Artificial Intelligence
Lawrence S. Gould
Automotive Design & Production, Nov. 2002