ORLANDO, FLA. — Robots are finding a more definitive role in the automation of manufacturing — and those who know expect quite a few more robots will join the workforce in the coming years.
For example, Yushin America Inc. and Wittmann Battenfeld Inc. drew onlookers at NPE 2015 to their concept robot displays. Yushin had a Cartesian full-servo robot that could plug letters into a cube and that could also work alongside another robot when the task called for help to lift a ball. Wittmann Battenfeld had a more futuristic setting, showing robots working together to service a race car's pit stop.
The Robotics Industries Association of Ann Arbor, Mich., reported that in 2014 the number of industrial robots ordered in North America rose 28 percent over the previous year. Another study, by Boston Consulting Group, predicted that the yearly growth in industrial robots will accelerate in the next decade. BCG said that by 2025, robots will handle 25 percent of the automatable tasks. Right now, they do about 10 percent.
Dick Motley, director of sales for the southeast region for Fanuc America Corp., sees similarities in the North American robotic market to the way the personal computer market was 25 years ago.
Costs have come down, but more importantly he pointed to “the functionality,” or the ease of use, as a catalyst for companies to turn to robotics.
He said new micro-based technology is helping robots do more. Motley noted that emulating the human eye, the human brain and/or the human hand is not easily copied, but robots offer “flat out more speed or precision, beyond what a human can do on repeatable tasks.”
He said robots are especially good for the four Ds — jobs that are dangerous, difficult, dirty or delicate.
Motley said robots have proven to be versatile for plastics processors. They can be used for the single extraction from an injection mold and they can tend big molding machines. Outside of the machine, they can do even more tasks, like degating, deflashing, case packing and bulk palletizing. Robots also are finding uses in welding, routing and insert molding.
“A lot of plastics is high volume at one end, but low volume at the other end,” said Stuart Cooper, vice president of sales at Flexicell Inc., a Fanuc integrator in Ashland, Va.
He said that companies are looking for “plug and play — you provide the power and the air and it is ready to go.”
James Cooper, vice president of sales at Kuka Robotics Corp., said the improvements in controls, as well as in speed, performance and integration is attracting more interest.
“Typically everything is 6-axis and that fits 90 percent of the applications,” he said.
Flexicell sells compact palletizer
Flexicell introduced a compact robotic palletizer at NPE. Cooper said the display model was sold to Neptune Industrial Group of Tallassee, Ala.
He said the appeal was that a customer could take it out of the box, and it was “easy to put on the line for one product, one line.”
Flexicell was incorporated in 1992 and has dealt with robots since 1994. Cooper said that they've installed closed to 450 systems in North America. The company has about 50 employees, plus a 70,000-square-foot facility in Richmond, Va.
Kuka targets medical devices
Kuka had a sign up in its booth advertising a new robot for clean room use. The model was just released, but Cooper that they were unable to get ready it in time for NPE. However, he said it was designed for use on medical devices.
He said that European plastics processors have adapted uses for six-axes articulating arms quicker than their counterparts in the United States, but that he sees growth coming to the U.S.
Kuka also offers an education program that it sells to schools on how to program robots. It offers a certificate for a 40-hour program, which is or typically one semester.
Kuka is based in Shelby Township, Mich. It doubled its space 2 ½ years ago to 80,000 square feet. It has 100 employees.