Today's robust robotics: Faster, better, cheaper, safer

Sheila Kennedy says take the risk factor out of dangerous or repetitive work.

By Sheila Kennedy

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Industrial robots are improving with time and branching into new applications. Today’s robots can detect flaws in vertical structures, easily learn welding tasks, and see in 3D. The latest designs are safer, are more affordable, and have a lower total cost of ownership.

Efficient climbing

Robots that scale heights need a secure grip. The robots developed by International Climbing Machines (ICM) can adhere to almost any hard surface. Designed with a vacuum chamber surrounded by a rolling locomotive seal, the climber can traverse concrete, composite, and brick surfaces, and withstand obstacles such as nuts or bolts.

“ICM is currently working with the Electric Power Research Institute to integrate impact-echo technology and positioning in its robots in order to determine the precise locations of flaws,” says Sam Maggio, president of International Climbing Machines. “This new technology could replace the scaffolding and rope systems currently used for inspecting vertical structures such as dam walls, wind turbines, and cooling towers.”

Simplified teaching

Robotic welders are getting easier and faster to implement. Kinetiq Teaching welding technology, developed by partners Yaskawa Motoman and Robotiq, simplifies robot programming and setup. It leverages the knowledge of welders without in-depth programming familiarity. Operators can physically guide the robot arms to the desired positions and log parameters using a color touchscreen.

“Major challenges of robotic welding in manufacturing are related to the shortage of available welders and the difficulty of achieving a compelling ROI for smaller companies,” says Chris Anderson, welding product manager. “Kinetiq Teaching changes the equation, and manufacturing companies will be able to automate welding jobs by using only their in-house welding expertise.”

3D vision

Some of today’s robots can see in three dimensions. The high-speed iRVision 3D Area Sensor from Fanuc America provides a detailed 3D map of areas such as storage bins. Its Interference Avoidance feature prevents contact with the bin walls. The vision tool is suited for factory environments requiring 2D and 3D guidance, error proofing, visual tracking, and quality control.

“Fanuc’s latest high-speed 3D Area Sensor is ideal for bin picking applications,” says Bernhard Walker, material handling engineer for Fanuc America. “We’re showing manufacturers how easy and practical robot vision can be, even for bin picking, which has traditionally been a very challenging robotic process.”

Low maintenance

Sheila Kennedy is a professional freelance writer specializing in industrial and technical topics.Sheila Kennedy is a professional freelance writer specializing in industrial and technical topics. She established Additive Communications in 2003 to serve software, technology, and service providers in industries such as manufacturing and utilities, and became a contributing editor and Technology Toolbox columnist for Plant Services in 2004. Prior to Additive Communications, she had 11 years of experience implementing industrial information systems. Kennedy earned her B.S. at Purdue University and her MBA at the University of Phoenix. She can be reached at sheila@addcomm.com.

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The new IRB 6700 robot family from ABB features design and energy efficiency improvements that are said to deliver up to 20% lower total cost of ownership. This seventh generation of large industrial robots is suitable for spot welding, material handling, and machine tending.

“In designing the IRB 6700, we integrated a new generation of accurate, efficient, and reliable motors and compact gearboxes that not only require less frequent maintenance, but are also easier to access when maintenance is scheduled,” says Nick Hunt, ABB Robotics manager of technology and support, North America. “The internal dressing design integrates the most exposed parts of the dress pack into the robot arm, lessening their wear and tear, further contributing to the lengthened service intervals.”

Safety and affordability

The economy and safety of robots is increasing. The Baxter interactive production robot from Rethink Robotics has a base price of $25,000, which is reportedly much lower than what manufacturing robots typically cost. Passive and active safety systems prevent it from harming itself or the people or equipment in its vicinity. Because it can operate alongside plant personnel without a safety cage, it saves valuable floor space.

“Baxter can be safely trained by line workers and other non-engineers. Technology such as series elastic actuators minimizes the likelihood of injury. Plus, Baxter is made in the United States,” says Matt Fitzgerald, senior product manager at Rethink Robotics.

The UR5 robot arm from Universal Robots likewise operates directly alongside humans without safety guarding. Force-sensing technology prevents contact with personnel, and force control features ensure that proper pressure is used. The flexible, low-cost robot arms serve multiple industries and applications and can quickly handle even microscopically small parts.

Universal Robots UR5 is being used by a plumbing fixtures and fittings manufacturer that needed an inexpensive automation solution that could easily be moved between CNC machines, assembly lines, and tube benders. “In a flexible environment like ours, you need a flexible robot — one that can work without safety cages, is portable, and can be reprogrammed quickly,” says RSS Manufacturing & Phylrich CEO Geoff Escalette.

Read Sheila Kennedy's monthly column, Technology Toolbox.

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