Robotic Integrators Take Their Specialties Seriously
| By: Winn Hardin, Contributing Editor
Flexibility, ease of use, and market acceptance are increasing user acceptance and application of robotics in key industries, including pharmaceutical, electronics and food processing. Object based menus and simple icon driven user interfaces along with a better understanding of return on investment are also boosting sales into markets that were once clouded by concerns of overly complex robotic solutions.
Robots are considerably more user friendly than they were 5 years ago, offering greater flexibility for changeover and accommodating more products per manufacturing line. But don't let a slick graphical user interface (GUI) fool you. It took years of hard work and installation experience by a growing universe of experts to achieve the success rate now enjoyed across many cross sections of industry. Robotic installations - even among the professionals - require careful consideration.
'If you're familiar with robot controls, you can build a system and adapt to last minute changes based on previous experience,' explained Universal Machine & Engineering Company (UMEC, Stowe, PA) engineering sales manager Jeff Reiche, P.E. 'Like a last minute addition of a conveyor. [The layman] may not understand their controls and how it will affect the overall systems. If you do it on your own, you have to go through the entire development process.'
By contrast, a qualified integrator is used to such changes and can be expected to respond in a timely manner.
Pharmaceuticals: Validation is crucial
The pharmaceutical manufacturing industry is perhaps the best example of an industry where experience really does count - not just through the quick development of a successful solution, but in terms of regulation and bottom-line savings. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and Europe's CE certification requirements are very strict in an industry where one manufacturing error could potentially crush a company through lawsuits and penalties.
UMEC's Reiche focuses on pharmaceutical applications. 'The process begins with the requirement documents. We will write them for the customer and help them develop the solution through the factory acceptance test at our location and then on-site development.'
Although FDA and CE marks have specific requirements, they do not offer a simple checklist for good manufacturing practices. Instead, many of UMEC's clients depend on UMEC to prove the technical information to complement their product and process expertise.
Like most industries, pharmaceutical companies are also looking for greater flexibility in their production lines in order to maximize return on capital expenditure. The ability to re-deploy equipment is one way to achieve that goal.
'In the past, you were supposed to be able to pick up the robot and change the tools, but you rarely saw that happen. Now the programs and robot integrator are smarter, you can retool fast and changeover even faster…we don't have to reinvent everything,' said Reiche.
Today's demand for flexibility in many pharmaceutical applications make robots a smart choice.
Software from UMEC's suppliers, such as Adept (Livermore, CA) and other robot suppliers provides the pharmaceutical industry with failure analysis and documentation. However, the integrator must ensure that system design and sensor placement will provide data for the software to track 100 percent of the product during production.
'Proper sensor checks and verification in the production and packaging mode are critical - especially during changeovers,' Reiche said.
While every client wants the fastest production line possible, 'you don't want to push the limits of the robots in pharmaceuticals, but stay in comfortable cycle times. The sensor checks may only be milliseconds, but they add up during the course of the line,' he said.
Electronics: An exact solution
While a misplaced capacitor might not bring down an electronic contract manufacturer, repeated misplacement - by just a few microns - of a part can lose a multi-million dollar contract in a New York minute.
Electronics manufacturers typically have engineers on staff that are familiar with robot operation and maintenance. Perhaps these engineers even have a preferred product line. But that experience does not always translate to understanding how vibration, lighting and optics can drastically effect product placement on a printed circuit board.
'Typically, the biggest criteria is accuracy - how accurate the product placement is. That and cycle time,' said Dave Duemler, CEO and technical director at Demco Automation (Quakertown, PA).
Demco typically uses third party specialists for optics and lighting in applications where microns count. 'There are a lot of people out there claiming to be specialists in this area, but few do it well. There's a little bit of magic involved,' Deumler said.
Other trends in the electronics manufacturing industry include the continued move toward discreet cells that also accommodate a larger product mix at lower volumes.
'Although we build some specialized machines that produce millions of parts per year, recently, it's designed in flexibility and minimized changeover that actually sold the job for us,' said Keith Bocchicchio, president of Synergistech (Lewisberry, PA).
To keep a handle on cost and competitiveness in today's tight economic environment, Syngergistech depends on vendors across all tiers of the automation industry, from high-end Adept solutions to low cost inspection tools from Cognex (Natick, MA) to board level solutions from Matrox (Dorval, Canada). The key is having the knowledge and experience to select the most cost effective tools for the application.
Food: Staying clean in a messy environment
From clean rooms to clean food, robots face different challenges in the world of food processing, such as end-of-shift spray downs and -20 °F temperatures.
According to Stuart Cooper, vice president of sales and marketing at Brenton Engineering (Alexandria, MN), a robotics integrator in the food industry has to follow a complex recipe.
'When cleaning needs to be done, does that impact overall line speed? What about production surges on other lines as one is being cleaned? What's novel about this product? Is it frosted or dry, and what packages will they go into?' Cooper asks of his customers.
'Suppliers are helping, too, by coming out with better products at lower cost points. A new Fanuc (Rochester Hills, MI) robot is helping us go from 25 cycles to 60 cycles per minute at a good price break, and that's helping us position better in the food processing market,' he added.
In automated food processing plants, speed is king but organic products do not always comply with manufacturers' wishes. 'G-force factors come into play. You might have a good vacuum hold on a product, but the product itself can come apart if you move too fast,' said Charlie Gales of Emtrol Inc. (Lancaster, PA). 'Other products have a thin coating on them so you can't damage it or let the coating work its way into a vacuum system.'
In the food industry, where robot interfaces and application specific routines are less developed than pharmaceutical and electronics, integrators take on even greater importance, according to Hans de Koning, president of Flexicell (Richmond, VA).
'Lately, we put a robot in a cold room, about -20 °F. You have to look at every piece of equipment -- plastic, bearings, grease, oil - and see if it can handle that temperature. We ended up putting a jacket around it and heated it to keep the robot above the minimum operating temperature of 32 °F,' Koning said.
Making the robot case
If you haven't seen lately what robots can do, the mystique and complexity of older systems may cloud your perceptions, but more companies are coming to realize the cost savings that pile up with automated material handling and processing.
When asked about cost justification to the client, Synergistech's Bocchicchio explained that '80 percent is ROI and labor elimination. The other 20 percent are ergonomic issues, but in either case you're weighing the cost of repetitive stress injuries against justifying a piece of equipment.'
While labor costs and bottom line issues still rule, every integrator interviewed said that human issues such as ergonomic concerns, working conditions (heavy lifting and cold rooms) and repetitive stress syndromes are gaining credence as reasons for a company to go to a robotic solution.
Interestingly enough, each of the integrators also said that one of the most important factors to robotic installations is not trying to put a round peg in a square hole.
'The most important point for an end user to remember is to go with experienced integrator that won't force a robot in an application,' explained UMC's Reiche. 'Start with a complete user requirement and document stage -- define exactly what the robot's going to do. Do that well at the beginning and it flows throughout the system. If you know the nuances of a particular application, you don't have any 'I gotcha's' when it's ready to turn on the equipment. There are always communication gaps during any project, but there are so many specifics to ask during a robotic installation that the customers doesn't even always know what questions to ask, much less what the answers might be.'