Get with the times with robotics

Learning to put robotics to use is an essential survival skill for U.S. manufacturers as robots become more efficient, reliable and easier to control while the available labor market shrinks with automation as part of the solution to fill the gap.

By Ken Schnepf

Robotic arms, controls and software are reaching out and grabbing an ever increasing portion of manufacturing. Learning to put robotics to use is an essential survival skill for U.S. manufacturers as robots become more efficient, reliable and easier to control while the available labor market shrinks with automation as part of the solution to fill the gap.

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The automotive industry has been a leader in successfully adopting robotics. More recently, general industry, packaging, food, rubber, plastics and the machinery industries have found more ways to put robots to work.

The world market for industrial robots is projected to increase at a yearly average of 5.6% from 2007 to 2009 to 130,150, says Gudrun Litzenberger, statistical department director, International Federation of Robotics (www.ifr.org). Robust growth in robot installations worldwide can be expected between 2007 and 2009. In terms of units, it’s estimated that the worldwide stock of operational industrial robots will increase from about 922,900 units in 2005 to 1.1 million at the end of 2009, representing an average annual growth rate of 4.9%. The IFR is a non-profit organization established in 1987 with headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany.

Non-automotive orders accounted for 44% of total orders for robots in 2006, compared with just 30% in 2005, according to the Robotics Industries Association (RIA), Ann Arbor, Mich. (www.roboticsonline.com), which was established in 1974. “We saw very strong growth in industries such as beverages and tobacco, apparel, wood products, paper manufacturing, printing, machinery manufacturing and furniture. We also saw growth in food and consumer goods, life sciences/pharmaceuticals/biomedical, and plastics and rubber,” says Donald Vincent, executive vice president of RIA.

“Constantly shifting consumer preferences are putting increased pressure on manufacturers to offer a wider variety of product styles, shapes, sizes and colors,” explains Bob Hirschinger, product marketing manager for Logix Motion at Rockwell Automation (literature.rockwellautomation.com/idc/groups/literature/documents/pp/9324-pp005_-en-p.pdf).

“As they work to streamline the production process, they’re learning to make more at faster speeds. This, in turn, is forcing these same manufacturers to demand greater speeds and accuracy from packaging operations. Simply put, packaging cannot be the bottleneck that delays delivery of products from the factory to the consumer.

To meet these demands, more companies are incorporating robots into their packaging lines to collect, move, pack and assemble products with the increased speed and accuracy the applications demand.”

There are plants using vision-guided delta robots for secondary packaging pick-and-place at speeds as high as 160 products per minute, says Hirschinger. Over the years, Rockwell developed a common hardware and software architecture that supports multiple control disciplines and application types. The result is improved productivity, increased capabilities and simplified control (www.rockwellautomation.com/rockwellsoftware/design/rslogix5000/whatsnew.html).

“Configuring robots presents enormous challenges for manufacturers, who have to support applications controlled by non-homogeneous control systems made by different vendors and programmed with different software,” explains Hirschinger. “These same challenges face OEMs and system integrators, who have to learn, integrate and support controllers from different vendors for each control function, including sequential, motion, safety and robot control. More components and more complexity divert application resources, slow machine development and increase engineering costs.”

The ABB Robotics Consumer Industries Division has realized significant growth in its Partner Network (www.abb.com/robotics). The network was established in recognition that few plant engineers with manufacturing companies have the prerequisite skills to integrate robots into existing and new plants.

“The partnership concept is a growing trend in automation for consumer industries where the services of system integrators are now used in all sorts of installations,” says Frank-Peter Kirgis of ABB Robotics Consumer Industries Division. “Robotic technology demands a similar approach, and the ABB Partner Network is helping to create a broader knowledge base in the marketplace. Both Partners and their end users benefit technically from the formal alliance with ABB Robotics.”

The network enables system integrators, machine builders and consultants to gain access to project opportunities and provides a forum for regular exchange of information and know-how. ABB believes the way forward is to establish formal alliances, because this enables information, technology and experience to be shared in a mutually secure manner to the benefit of the end user.

RIA in conjunction with the ISR will hold the International Robots & Vision Show, June 12 to 14, at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center, Rosemont, Ill. See Rockwell’s and ABB’s Web sites for more information on training they provide in robotics.

E-mail Managing Editor Ken Schnepf at kschnepf@putman.net.

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