Executive Interview: Rick Schneider, President & CEO, FANUC Robotics North America, Inc.
How do you think the robotics industry will continue to grow in the coming years?
In the year 2000 and beyond, the robotics industry will continue to penetrate new industries by finding ways to help our customers lower the cost of manufacturing products by increased productivity and higher quality processes.
To continue to grow the industry, robotic companies are providing unique system solutions for their customers. By working in partnership with customers, we can provide expertise to help them find solutions in the early planning stages whether they are building new manufacturing facilities or improving existing facilities. Robotics companies also conduct intensive field investigations with key customers, integrators and potential customers create products that a particular market really needs. Two examples are Fanuc Robotics' Toploader series of robots and the M-410iWW.
We introduced the Toploader series of robots after analyzing the needs of our customers in the plastics and machine tool industries to discover where improvements in robotic technology could be made. This series of robots uses an innovative overhead rail with full six axes of motion to provide a unique, flexible solution. The rail axis on these robots creates a 'mobile' robot capable of servicing multiple machines, stations or operations. The overhead mount also reduces floor space and ceiling height requirements compared to gantry robots and keeps the front of the machine tool clear for tool change and maintenance.
These overhead rail-mounted robots are not just material handling robots - customers can also perform secondary operations such as trimming, washing, deburring, palletizing, labeling or packing. In material removal, we recently created new applications for the plastics industry - robotic deflashing systems that can compensate for part variance, and provide the quality needed for a finished product.
To open the palletizing market for customers requiring higher payloads, we introduced the Fanuc Robotics' M-410iWW robot. With a payload of 880 lbs., this robot is capable of complete layer palletizing, heavy product palletizing (including beverage, brick and building materials); coil handling and barrel/drum handling. It can achieve comparable cycle rates with other robotic and non-robotic palletizers, while offering increased flexibility.
This robot was developed because of customer demand for increased robot throughput. Palletizing robot lift capabilities have increased from 65 killograms to 400 killograms - that's 880 pounds of product. As the payload has increased, so has the throughput. Another demand has been met because we listened to the customer.
Technological improvement in robotics is part of an increasing industry trend away from fixed to flexible automation. Robot companies are responding with models offering higher payloads and more flexibility to better compete with fixed automation.
What benefits do customers get from using robotics to automate their processes?
Robotic automation systems are helping our customers achieve higher throughput and yield, while increasing labor optimization at the same time.
Many industries have now adopted or are considering robotic automation for many of the same reasons that the automakers applied robotic automation in the infancy of the robotics industry. Companies continue to seek new ways to reduce the cost of manufacturing products and automate jobs that are repetitive, mundane or potentially hazardous for their employees. With the current shortage of skilled labor and low unemployment in the United States, robotic automation can allow companies to meet customer demand and expand their business.
What new applications and industries are being penetrated by robotics?
Robotic automation is not fully integrated into every industry, but we continue to develop new applications and enter new industries that allow first-time robot users to become familiar with our products. For example, recently, a company that integrates Fanuc robots introduced a new robotic jewelry grinding and polishing system that will allow jewelry manufacturers to automate a former manual process.
Other unique applications include a robotic cutting system to remove flank ribs in a meat processing plant and another that skims the 'dross' from a zinc galvanizing bath at one of the world's leading hot-dip galvanizers of automotive coiled-sheet steel.
What advancements are making expansion into new industries possible?
The expansion into new industries is partly due to recent advancements in robotic technology, including the improved ease of robotic programming and the increased use of PC software products. With the increasing use of computers in manufacturing, robotic customers can use open system software as a window into their system to assist their planning, operation and maintenance. Diagnostic information is collected and customers can remotely troubleshoot via an Ethernet or Internet connection.
Advancements in robot controllers are also providing benefits to customers. Our most recently introduced robot controller, for example, has the capability to make a robot appear as a Web site. If this robot is on an Ethernet that has an Internet connection or a dial-in modem, then a customer can access that robot from a computer several hundred miles away to obtain real-time production, uptime and product information.
What kinds of vision and sensor advancements have helped reduce the costs of automating a system?
The industry is on the verge of another breakthrough in machine vision. Better vision and sensor systems are helping to reduce the costs of automating systems. Machine vision has become more affordable and robust. Our systems use state-of-the-art Pentium® MMX technology. One area that machine vision is particularly effective is identifying loosely located parts, for both automotive and non-automotive applications. In this application the vision system targets the exact location of the part, transfers that information to the robot, which picks it up.
Sensors are also making great strides in robotics. Today we have the technology for a robot with force sensing capabilities for part assembly. This was not possible until recently. Although one of our robots with this capability is successfully assembling tight tolerance gears at an industrial plant today, mass acceptance is still years away.
What has driven the changes in products introduced by robotics companies?
Customers want products that not only meet their needs and are flexible, but also are easy-to-use. They want robots to be programmable by the operator, not just by a journeyman electrician or an electrical engineer. As a result, substantial time is spent in R&D designing easy-to-use interfaces, graphical in nature, with minimal training required so operators can easily learn and use them.
By listening to customers and researching new markets for potential customers, the robotics industry will enjoy substantial growth in the years to come. In today's competitive environment, product reliability, maintainability and good customer service are a given. Applying innovation and technology to provide solutions for our customers is what keeps the robotics industry moving forward.