Orlando, Fla. — When a Danish startup introduced a user-friendly robot back in 2008, that could work safely close to people without guarded enclosures, some scoffed at the notion that such automation and collaboration would play a big role in advanced manufacturing.
Ten years later, collaborative robots, or cobots, are the fastest-growing segment of industrial automation and the plastics industry is a fast-growing market.
At NPE2018, cobots from that startup, Universal Robots, which is based in Odense, Denmark, were used for pouching medical devices, loading plastic bottles in boxes, cleaning automotive mirrors and palletizing blow molded containers.
"Robots don't have to be expensive or difficult to integrate," said Brian Dillman, eastern region sales manager. "Our objective is to facilitate ease of use to the customer base. The goal of reducing complexity and demystifying automation is a big part of what we're doing."
UR says it grew rapidly in 2017, generating $170 million in global sales, which was up 72 percent. With subsidiaries and regional offices in the U.S., Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Czech Republic, Turkey, China, India, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Mexico, UR says it has 58 percent of the global cobot market share.
RND Automation & Engineering is a customer. The Sarasota, Fla.-based company offers robotic applications for assembly, welding, pharmaceutical packaging, measurements and inspections, work cells, and material handling and conveying.
"A lot of people are interested in Universal Robots but don't have the ability to do it in-house. That's where we come in," RND President Sean Dotson. "We buy the robot and do the programming and integrate it into the rest of the system."
At NPE, RND demonstrated a portable, modular system called Kanga Poucher for form, fill, and seal uses in the medical device, pharmaceutical and durable goods markets. A UR cobot put products into the pouches ahead of sealing.
"This is a low-volume, high-mix application," Dotson said. "There is some competition, but nobody else is loading medical devices into vertical pouches with a cobot."
The Kanga Poucher can be picked up and moved with a forklift to wherever it is needed.
"It's all self-contained. It's an island of automation," Dillman said.
Trends toward high-mix, low-volume production as well as composite part fabrication and blow molding have increased demand for cobots, according to UR.
Proco Machinery Inc. is adding options to the commercially available UR cobots and turning them into RoboPackers, which can handle different packing configurations and allow more PET bottles to fit into boxes.
The Mississauga, Ontario-based company went through three prototypes and spent about one and a half years developing its automation for the blow molding sector.
The flexible UR arms can also be used for injection molding, labeling, polishing, screw driving and inspecting.
"Our product is uniquely positioned to address the pain points of the plastics manufacturers, such as tightening labor markets, rapidly changing production lines and the need to constantly lower overhead costs," Dillman said.
UR co-founder Esben Østergaard, who is the company's chief technology officer, will receive the Engleberg Automation Award from the Robotic Industries Association on June 20 for his role in developing the cobots. Named after Unimation Inc. founder Joseph Engelberger, who is considered the "father of robotics," the award has been given out since 1977 to recipients who have made identifiable advances in robotics or enabled progress in an area essential to the growth of robotics.
Østergaard developed force and safety controls to ensure that if the robot collides with a person, the robot automatically stops operating and does not cause bodily harm, which meets safety requirements on force and torque limitations. The controls have eliminated the need for safety guarding in most situations, allowing for a more compact footprint.
RIA President Jeff Burnstein called Østergaard a visionary for defining a new category of robotics.
"His work in the field of collaborative robot applications has allowed robots to enter previously unthinkable sectors in just about every industry," Burnstein said in a news release. "Esben Østergaard's emphasis on robots that work side by side with people and are easy to use has created enormous interest among many small- and medium-sized companies who never even considered robots before. In a world that is increasingly characterized by people and robots working together, Esben's pioneering technology advances play a pivotal role."