New Customers Explore Vision-Guided Robotics
| By: Winn Hardin, Contributing Editor
The ability to cut fixed tooling costs helps promote vision-guided robot applications, even in difficult economic times.
From pastries to plastics, more industries are turning to vision-guided robotic manufacturing to cut down on fixed tooling costs, accommodate wider varieties of product and do it all for less capital outlay.
A hand tool manufacturer gives one example. Recently, a maker of crowfoot socket wrenches asked ABCO Automation to automate the laser marking of the crowfoot, or lower jaw of the wrench. The product line included several different sizes and styles of tooling, each of which would have required dedicated fixtures to mark without the use of a robot, or slower manual labor.
‘‘We went with vision guidance because they had so many different parts,’‘ explains ABCO Automation’s Advanced Systems Consultant, Perry Cornelius. ‘‘It would have been much more complicated and expensive to implement with hard tooling. With the vision guidance, a square hole was found and a scale factor used to work with any size part, whether it was one-quarter inch or three inches.’‘
While the overall economy is down, along with estimates for the overall machine vision and robot market, not all boats are experiencing the rough waters. ‘‘2008 was a record year for the number of robots that were enabled by machine vision,’‘ notes FANUC Robotics America, Inc.’s (Rochester Hills, Michigan) National Account Manager, Ed Roney. ‘‘We’re still expecting a good year in 2009, even though it’s going to be difficult. Customers are stilling asking us to pursue difficult applications through vision-guided robotics, such as bin picking and singulating parts. While the automotive industry is having a tough year, we’re seeing more interest from outside that industry, in the plastics arena, for instance. We’re seeing a lot of plastic tube picking applications in medical and other industries. People see the value in vision-guided robotics, and value is what people are looking for these days.’‘
Bottom of the Bin
Convincing clients to add new capital equipment, such as a vision-guided robot workcell, in difficult economic times can feel like Sisyphus tackling the hill, but when the solution solves an intractable problem, or offers fast return on investment, the customers listen. We’re seeing that companies are using robots to eliminate positions and costs, or respond to attrition in labor, whereas in the past, the companies wanted to increase production and improve quality; get more product out the door,’‘ notes ABCO’s Cornelius. ‘‘Now, reducing overhead is the driving factor.’‘
Reducing overhead and labor costs are driving de-racking and bin-picking applications both inside and outside of the automotive market – the largest user of these systems. De-racking applications typically require a couple of men or a lift-assist tool, while a vision-guided robot can de-rack parts all by itself,’‘ says Steve Mleczewski, Project Engineer at VMT, part of the Pepperl + Fuchs (Ann Arbor, Michigan) group. ‘‘While most of these applications are still in automotive, namely in body shops and downstream suppliers, the benefits in safety and costs enabled by vision-guided robotics are still driving companies to explore automation when it can save money right away. We deliver a system with solid software that’s easy to operate and understand. Software is attracting a lot of our customers right now.’‘
Bin-picking, or the picking of loose parts from unstructured shipping and storage bins, is spreading beyond automotive to plastics, medical, and other manufacturing industries, according to FANUC’s Roney. These applications, however, don’t come without their challenges. ‘‘We looked at an application the other day where the parts weren’t just piled; the operator had to use a hammer to get the parts separated.’‘
FANUC still uses both 2D and 3D vision systems to guide robots to pick parts from bins, but they’re adding some unique approaches. Such as placing a magnet on the robot to pick up a part regardless of orientation, laying the part down, and then picking it up again before placing it back on the manufacturing line in the proper orientation.
‘‘When bin picking, it really comes down to cycle rate,’‘ explains Roney. ‘‘If you can get the part of the bin on the first try, great; if you have circumstances where the robot has to pass one part to get to another, you’re eating up cycle time. We’re seeing more people use flexible feeders with vision guided robots rather than bowl feeders that have to be tuned to each part.’‘
ABCO’s Cornelius confirms what customers want. ‘‘On the vision guided systems we’ve bid, cycle times are the toughest part; cost is another problem,’‘ says Cornelius. ‘‘We’re seeing customers more concerned on price. We’ve seen fewer vision guided workcells the past year or two, but we are still quoting them.’‘
Working to a Faster Beat
As robots move into plastics, food processing and other applications, customers are wanting smaller robots, rather than the powerful giants of the automotive industry - smaller and faster. ‘‘As you get into some of the food markets, and consumer goods, it’s all about speed,’‘ concludes FANUC’s Roney. ‘‘How quickly can you find an object, find a pastry, put it in the package, and ship that out. It’s all about speed. Smaller, cheaper, faster.’‘
As more robot and companies offer vision solutions through internal offerings or partnerships, integration between the two disparate systems grows tighter and easier to use for customers. Ease of use combined with cost savings are likely to help the vision guided robot industry survive tough economic times with minimal impact. ‘‘In my mind, the biggest thing we’re dealing with right now is the unknown. I truly think everything will come back, it’s just a question of how and when,’‘ says Kevin Taylor, Vice President of the Business Automotive Unit at ISRA VISION SYSTEMS (Lansing, Michigan).