This robot from Omron was an impressive sight at Hannover Messe Fair –. The robotic arm was able to actively play ping-pong with people by measuring the velocity and placement of the incoming ping-pong ball and responding with an automated action to the deliver the ball back. It even won a few matches against people at the fair.
The significant labour costs and geographic isolation of the New Zealand manufacturing industry has meant that in order to compete with international players, local manufacturers must look to innovate with new technologies and automate their production processes.To compete with global manufacturing hubs, leading Auckland-based injection moulding company, TCI New Zealand (TCI) were looking for an automated solution that would offer a more cost-effective means of producing its customers’ products. TCI found the solution in Universal Robots (UR) - a global developer and manufacturer of six-axis industrial robots. TCI has now deployed two of Universal’s industrial robotic arms: the UR3 and UR5, to perform labelling and assembly tasks for the company’s EasiYo Yoghurt Maker line, as well as its storage bins.
With a UR robot assisting, several key processes in the manufacture of these products have been automated, relieving employees of repetitive assembly processes and ensuring smooth production flow. The UR3 was the first machine implemented by TCI, with the costs of the robot recouped six months after it was first purchased. Satisfied with this return on investment, TCI then decided to purchase the UR5, with the payback period expected to be under 12 months.
Finding a solutionTCI is one of the largest privately-owned plastic injection moulding companies in New Zealand, based in Avondale, Auckland. For more than 20 years, TCI has manufactured a vast array of products, including building products, components used in instrumentation, navigation, rescue and communications, as well as a range of retail products including homewares, garden products and outdoor furniture for companies across New Zealand and the rest of the world.
“Previously we were paying two employees to work in 12 hour shifts to ensure around-the-clock production of our EasiYo Yoghurt Maker,” said Quintin Fowler, Manager Director at TCI. “If one employee didn’t turn up for work it meant the entire production line would be halted. This wasn’t really financially sustainable for us so we were looking for an automated solution that would guarantee quality assurance and help us to reduce costs.”
During its search for an automation solution, TCI came across UR’s technology at a trade show and made contact via Design Energy, its New Zealand distributor.
“We developed the layout for the production cell and designed and built an appropriate gripper unit for each of the applications,” said Mike Shatford, Managing Director at Design Energy. “TCI then manufactured the machine frames and mounted the various operating units in the relativities we had laid out. Once the machines were completed our technician spent time at TCI writing the robot programs and getting each cell operating to the customers’ requirements.”
“Design Energy were fantastic,” said Fowler. “We were initially considering an off-the-shelf robot from overseas, but I’m glad we were able to find a customisable solution.”
Robots in actionThe UR3 is a compact table-top robot that weighs just 11kg and is capable of handling payloads up to 3kg. The robot has a reach radius of up to 500mm and features 360-degree rotation on all wrist joints and infinite rotation on the end joint. It is ideal for manufacturers such as TCI that have limited factory floor space and a number of intricate processes.
TCI uses the UR3 to help label and place rubber feet on its EasiYo Yoghurt Makers. After a product is moulded, the UR3 aligns and passes the product though a label printer, then it adheres the label to the base of the product. The UR3 then inverts and places the product onto a mandrel, then picks up rubber feet from a bowl feeder and places them on the base of the product.
A pneumatic press is then activated, which presses the feet firmly on the product. The UR3 picks up the finished assembly and places it on a conveyer belt for delivery to the next process. The UR3’s controller provides control for all ancillary equipment including the label printer, bowl feeder, pneumatic press and conveyor.
The success of UR3 gave TCI the confidence to implement a UR5 robot to help assemble several different sizes of storage bins, from 40L up to 112L. The UR5 helps manufacturers automate repetitive and dangerous tasks with payloads up to 5kg and a reach radius of up to 850mm. The UR5 is suitable for collaborative processes such as picking, placing and testing.
“We use the UR5 to put wheels on storage bins and we programmed the robots to be able to place wheels on multiple sized storage bins,” said Fowler. “The robots are so easy-to-program that we can quickly change from one size to the next by pressing just a few buttons.”
Flexible, easy to program and safe to use“Both the UR3 and UR5 went beyond our expectations in what we were looking for in a robot,” Fowler noted. “These robots have the ability to perform the tasks that we need without being overly expensive or difficult to program. They also offered a quick return on our investment.
“UR’s robots can easily move around and fold over on themselves in very tight spaces. The robot can also operate safely alongside our staff without the need for guarding.”
All UR robots can be completely reprogrammed and deployed for other tasks in a matter of minutes. A graphical user interface with a teach function enables an operator to simply grab the robot arm and show it how a movement should be performed. The user-friendly interface then allows staff to drag and drop the routines to do their programming.
“The UR3 and UR5 are very flexible robots. They are very easy to reprogram, which is why we use the UR5 to help assemble all of our storage bins. The robot can be reset to perform different jobs depending on the size of the bin,” said Fowler.
In contrast to traditional industrial robots in the market, UR’s small and lightweight robotic arms are able to work safely alongside staff (subject to prior risk assessment). The robots’ state-of-the-art force limit safety feature automatically stops the robot from operating when its movement is obstructed. The robot will not exert a force greater than the limit specified in the adjustable safety settings.
“One thing I loved about UR was that we didn’t have to worry about guarding,” said Fowler. “Whereas a lot of the other robots in the market guarding was an issue because you’d have to use safety barriers for all the machines which just complicates the situation.”
The pay-offAccording to TCI, the company has been able to significantly reduce expenditure by using robots at a time when labour costs can be 10 to 20 times higher that of other overseas markets.
“We paid off the UR3 within six months, which means we can reinvest in further product development and innovation,” said Fowler. “We also saved around 75% on yearly product assembly labour costs for the UR3 and UR5.”
When asked what appealed to him the most about the UR3 and UR5 robots, Fowler pointed to their simple programming and consistency.
“The robots are easy to set up and reprogramming can take just a few minutes. However one of the biggest selling points for us is having that guarantee that the robots aren’t going to call in sick – production can go on 24/7 without us worrying about human related factors that might stop production.”
All over the world, ageing populations and changing attitudes are making it harder to hold on to workers, believes Dr Rodney Brooks. Brent Balinski spoke to Brooks, founder of Rethink Robotics, about some demographic and technology shifts to watch out for and why it’s best to be realistic.
In the markets where Rethink sells its collaborative robots, ageing workforces and a shortage of younger workers available to replace retirees are a combination troubling manufacturers, according to founder, chairman and CTO, Dr Rodney Brooks.
It’s a problem that’s been brewing for many years, and an issue in China which he picked up on early in the millennium as co-founder of iRobot (which still produces its Roombas there, at a rate of around two million annually). The same goes for Adelaide-born Brooks’s adopted home of the US, he said. Ditto for Europe.
Digital engineering and the human-machine interface is likely to benefit from a recent international collaboration on the interaction between soft materials and rigid robots at the University of Auckland.
The new research-training group between New Zealand and Germany will also have implications for the future of safety and medical ergonomics for the meat, agricultural and automotive sectors.
Overall, the aim is to educate a new generation of digital engineering doctoral students at the University of Auckland and the University of Stuttgart in areas including simulation technology, computer modelling, sensor technology, and robotics and control engineering.
The interaction of rigid robots with easy-to-deform materials is challenging even independent of its applications in functions such as the field of developing and designing exoskeletons, fully automatic apple pickers, or meat cutting devices.
The collaboration is led by two professors from the University of Stuttgart - Professor Oliver Röhrle and Professor Alexander Verl and two professors from the University of Auckland, Professor Peter Xu (Faculty of Engineering) and Associate Professor Leo Cheng (Auckland Bioengineering Institute).
“Soft materials or tissues are often subject to damage or injuries when handled by rigid robots and so far there have been few attempts to improve this situation,” Professor Xu said.
“To contribute to a long-term and significant impact that solves these problems, the new International Research Training Group (IRTG) established an interdisciplinary environment for enhancing basic research and training outstanding doctoral students.”
According to Professor Peter Hunter, director of the Auckland Bioengineering Institute, this IRTG will “greatly benefit” from the synergies between both universities, in particular in the areas of simulation technology, cyber-physical engineering, robotics and biomedical technology.
“It will significantly improve our understanding of the interaction between next-generation robotic devices and soft human tissues,” he added.
The group will develop novel simulation technologies and sensors to estimate the deformations of materials that are subject to the interaction with the rigid robot.
In addition, it will also develop new automation and control strategies for robots interacting with easy-to-deform materials.
These new applications will improve the knowledge base for the design and the automation of industrial plants in general, and the knowledge and experiences will form a basis to enhance the exchange of information between the virtual and the physical world.
The new IRTG between Auckland and Stuttgart will train 20 PhD researchers for the first phase of four years (2017-2021), ten at each side, jointly supervised by academics from both universities.
At Auckland, ten professors and academics from the Faculty of Engineering and Auckland Bioengineering Institute will take part in the IRTG.
Diverseco, Australia's leading integrated measurement, packaging and product inspection solutions provider, is delighted to announce the acquisition of Robot Technologies/Systems Australia (RTA).
RTA is Australia’s foremost integrator of robotic automation, with over thirty years of experience and expertise in industrial robotics, manufacturing automation, process automation and factory automation.
The company supplies and services robotics equipment for businesses within a broad range of industries across Australia and New Zealand. These include manufacturing, mining, commodity handling, defence and pharmaceutical.
The company’s suppliers include leading brands Kawasaki, Staubli, Kyokutoh, Servo-Robot, Nitta and Pro-face, with RTA currently providing applications for material handling, sorting, machine unloading, fluid application, painting and welding, among others.
Established in 1986, the company’s operations were initially based on supply of robotics to the automotive industry and with RTA being the sole supplier of robots and associated services to Mitsubishi and Toyota.
Brenton Cunningham, Diverseco CEO said, “RTA is a valuable addition to our group, and will complement and enhance our group’s current capabilities, especially our supply of solutions to the manufacturing, packaging equipment and freight sector.”
Trinton Smith, RTA General Manager is confident that the purchase heralds a new era for the company, at a time when the manufacturing industry is undergoing a technological renaissance that is transforming operations.
“With Diverseco’s financial backing, corporate support and vision, we are excited about future opportunities and realising RTA’s full potential - as the go-to company for any business seeking sophisticated robotic automation solutions,” Trinton said.
“The fact is, far too many Australian companies remain unaware of how automation technologies can enable them to realise their productive potential by optimising their operations,” he added.
“Today, most industrial tasks can be automated with a diverse range of robots, far more than most people realise. In some respects, it’s matter of imagination that requires business leaders to envision what ‘can be’ rather than ‘what is.’ Once a company discovers the benefits provided by robotic integration in one part of their business, they are always keen to apply it to another.” Brenton said.
The robotics automation industry remains in a growth phase. For example, the Association for Advancing Automation in the U.S. reports that over fourteen thousand robots, valued at approximately $817 million, were ordered from North American companies in the first half of 2016. This is a new record.
Brenton said, “Manufacturing companies cannot afford to ignore the economic and competitive benefits provided by robotics advances. By embracing them now, they will improve productivity, forge ahead of their rivals and gain an edge with customers who are seeking their own gains in the supply chain..”
Brenton said, “Many of RTA’s core competencies reside in its people, many of whom are recognised experts in their fields, which includes mechatronics engineering. Consequently, we are delighted to have retained their experienced staff and contractors.”
RTA founder, industry legend Doug Smith will remain at the company and will be responsible for managing some key areas for the foreseeable future.
RTA will be closely aligned with another Diverseco company, Scaco Pty Ltd, due to similarities in their automation operations. Consequently, Group General Manager Tim Francis is tasked with overseeing both of these operations.
“The RTA team are second to none in their ability to optimise manufacturing processes across a multitude of industries by incorporating automation and robotics into company operations,” Tim said.
‘They are a great group of people! I’m certain that will embrace the Diverseco’s core values, contribute to our company culture and will continue to provide RTA customers world-class robotics solutions,’ he added.
To celebrate the acquisition, Brenton Cunningham and Doug Smith were recently invited to visit Kawasaki Robots Head Office in Akashi, Japan, where they were entertained by the senior management, provided a tour of facilities, and briefed of Kawasaki’s latest innovations. They are pictured shaking hands with Shin-ichi Hada, Senior Manager at Kawasaki Robotics.
Industrial robotics have brought automation a long way toward meeting these goals.
This technology has also created new possibilities and opportunities in part production, assembly and quality inspection for industries including aerospace, automotive, medical and more.
However, industrial robotics can’t solve every issue, and sometimes it can even create new problems. That’s where the collaborative robot or “cobot,” comes in.
This e-book covers the top five cobots available in the market today. We’ll look over technical summaries for each cobot, what applications they are best suited for, what accessories they can use, and what kind of ROI can be expected after integration.
To learn about the history of collaborative robots and where they came from, check out A History of Collaborative Robots: From Intelligent Lift Assists to Cobots.