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Robots free up workers from high-risk tasks

By: Bill Bregar

June 3, 2014

When Plastics News began in 1989, it was still common to see machine operators manually opening the door on the an injection press, physically pulling parts out of a mold and then closing the door for the next cycle.

Today that’s pretty rare. You do still see operators trimming parts, especially on older molds of long-running parts. But today robots are at work — not just pulling runners, either. Robots have become much more complex and sophisticated.

The most popular is the beam robot, also called a Cartesian, or gantry. And indeed, they are tailor-made for injection molding, as they mount above the molding area and send the robot arm down to pull our parts. Now beam robots can be equipped with a revolving wrist, to present the part to downstream processes like decorating, vision inspection or weighing, or to assembly and final packaging.

The plastics industry — even some smaller companies — are investing in high-end articulating-arm robots that can do nearly any kind of part manipulation.

It’s not uncommon to see one robot remove parts and place them on a carrier that moves the oriented parts to a second robot.

The robot revolution is not about replacing workers, industry leaders say. Yes, a robot doesn’t call in sick, come in hung-over or become disgruntled and threaten to call OSHA. But the real reason for automation is a consistent cycle, quality parts and a stable and repeatable process, quality. The old days of operators opening the gate meant that they, in effect, controlled the cycle time, and it had variations. Not good.

Robots also keep operators away from the molding area, a potentially dangerous zone for burns and cuts — or worse, crushed body parts.

The next horizon is a two-armed robot that works side-by-side with people and sports an expressive, computer-screen face. Its name is Baxter.

And yes, there are a few fully automated, “lights-out” plastics factories, with no employees. But these are rare, Most of the time, robots free up employees to higher tasks, such as working on new products or interfacing with customers.

So do not be afraid. After all, people still have to build, program and service the robots. Robots can’t build other robots ... we all know that? Pretty funny, right?

Check back with us in 2039: our future reporters for Plastics News’ 50th anniversary issue will tell you if that scenario is science fiction or plastics industry fact. Unless journalism is automated by then — but of course, that’ll never happen. No way.

... Right?