Time to join the robotics revolution?

In this Big Picture Interview, John Martini explains what's new, what's now and what to consider before you invest.

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John Martini is an assistant professor of electronics technology at the University of Arkansas - Fort Smith, where he teaches classes in the robotics certification program. His educational background includes an Associate of Applied Science in electronics technology from UAFS when it was Westark, a bachelor of arts in liberal studies from the University of Oklahoma, and a master of arts in management from Webster University.

PS: From where we stand at the start of 2015, how do you see automation and robotics revolutionizing manufacturing and production in the U.S.?

JM: I see that for a lot of companies, automation is the way they can compete against foreign manufacturers that are taking away business because of manpower. China can throw a lot of people at a manufacturing process and not have to do automation if they don't want to, and so can Mexico. But now American manufacturers are finding out that with automation, they become more competitive. And then they don't have to worry about shipping, either. If I don't have to ship a container from overseas or out of country, then I don't have to worry about going through quarantine or paying excise taxes. I can get a more direct point of sales. I think that helps.

PS: What are some of the robotics innovations you're most excited about?

JM: In manufacturing I think one of the exciting things is the use of cameras. One of the things that anybody who majors in computer science really needs to study when you talk about robotics is vision. Cameras become the eyes of the robot, where they can actually see what's going on in the process, recognize colors, and make decisions based on what they see.

Also, with vision, now you can have robots doing inspections. Back in the day, if you were doing quality control, normally you couldn't inspect every part because it would take too much time. But with a robotic system, every part needs inspection, because a robot can't accept a part that's not precise. With a vision system, the robots almost stop you from making mistakes as you go.

Beyond vision, some of the tried-and-true robotics systems are just getting better, too. Welding's getting better all the time, and spray painting is another good one. Smart robots, using AI (artificial intelligence), actually can learn a process from a human. That's how you teach a robot how to do spray painting on a car. You let the human do the fluid motion, and at the same time, the robot is memorizing the motion that the human is teaching it, and then it just plays that back over and over again. So you get that nice, smooth painting stroke you normally would have to have a human do.

Really, as far as the painting process for automobiles and for any manufacturing process that involves spray painting, the robotic way is so much safer and so much more reliable than the human way. There are lots of hazardous chemicals in paints, and robots can sit in their little plastic cubes all day and go at it. Memorizing or learning procedure from a human and then duplicating that procedure—that's something manufacturers with robotics systems are using a lot now.

PS: From a production standpoint, what are keys to maximizing a robotics system's efficiency?

JM: At the start, you want to design a robotic system for manufacturability, because you want to minimize any kind of complexity in assembly. The simpler you can keep it, the easier it will be for the robot to do the process, and in the long run, the more precise and the more quality the parts are going to be. When you minimize parts and you minimize the complexity of the parts, you minimize errors because you've actually improved the process that the robot is going to do.

PS: What are the top considerations that plant managers need to weigh when they're deciding whether to invest in robotics systems?

JM: There are good reasons for using robots in manufacturing, but one of the mistakes people make is they automatically think, "OK, if I start using a robot, productivity is going to go up"—not necessarily so. And they'll think, "Intelligent machines can do the same job as trained workers and save labor costs by replacing workers." Not necessarily so. It depends on the process you're doing and how you're using the robot.

A key disadvantage is cost, because it is a capital investment, and an expensive one. A big investment in robotics will pay off in time only if you're doing your homework – you'd better do a little bit of research before you start spending those big bucks, because not every process is conducive to robotics. So, does a robot increase productivity automatically? No. But a robot over time will out-produce a human, because robots don't have to take potty breaks, robots don't have to go to lunch, and robots don't go on vacation.

Robots also can improve quality, because of the accuracy of the process they're programmed to do. If they're designed for manufacturability, you are going to get a better product. They can reduce personal injuries and improve safety, too, and they can hold down or reduce production costs.

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