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Robotics and the Green Trend: A Q&A

POSTED 05/04/2009

 | By: Bennett Brumson, Contributing Editor

Concerns about the natural state of our planet have never been higher. Manufacturers are putting a considerable amount of thought into how to lower their impact on the natural environment while still supplying the goods that people and industry require. Investing in robotics is among one of several strategies that business are using in their efforts to “go green.”

Going green, diminishing the repercussions of the production process on the Earth, has inexorably become a trend. “Many manufacturers have not yet recognized the role that robotics can play in conservation,” says, John Burg, President of Ellison Technologies Automation (Council Bluffs, Iowa). Smart players in industry will adapt to this new reality sooner rather than later.

Companies that are going green will have a chance to discuss environmentally friendly manufacturing, among other topics, at the 2009 International Robot, Vision & Motion Control Show and Conference to be held at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont (Chicago), Illinois, June 9-11, 2009.

What green technology trends do you see now and in the near future?

Material removal tasks on a wind turbine in progress, courtesy KMT Robotic Solutions Inc.“When robots make the manufacturing process more efficient, robots make it greener,” asserts Roberta Zald, Market Planning and Communications Director at KMT Robotic Solutions Inc. (Auburn Hills, Michigan). “The push to make cars and planes lighter and more fuel efficient is a green trend. This push is driving aerospace and automotive companies to use more composite materials and carbon fiber to reduce weight.” Opportunities for robotics will come in handling and trimming these new materials, Zald believes.

“Robotics help reduce scrap during a trimming work cell’s initial set-up. With computer numerical controlled machines (CNC), multiple parts are often needed to set up the machine to come up with the first good part. Using robotics leads to faster and more efficient changeovers to new part runs,” she adds.

Zald points out another facet of robotic applications that can be considered green: Removing operators from dangerous environments that could impact their health. Robots in applications such as trimming, sanding and painting help keep operators safe while controlling waste so they do not negatively impact the operator’s health or the environment.

Sharing the belief that robotics can play a role in greening up of automotive production is Greg Hollows, Director of Machine Vision Products with Edmund Optics Inc. (Barrington, New Jersey). “The automotive industry is trying to be more green by producing more fuel efficient vehicles. Vision-guided robotics can help.” Hollows’ caveat is the automotive sector is not spending cash at the moment, but he expects investment in green technology to increase in the coming years.

The trend toward thinking green is more of a philosophy than a standard in manufacturing, posits
David Arceneaux, Operations Assistant Division Manager at Stäubli Corp. (Duncan, South Carolina) “Companies are developing manufacturing systems utilizing robotics which helps promote green design and sustainable production strategies. Companies are recycling, using alternative power, and utilizing robotics where they have not before,” says Arceneaux.

Arceneaux’s colleague at Stäubli, Chad Henry, concurs. Henry, Stäubli’s Applications Engineering Manager, contends, “Robotics can be part of an overall green strategy through redeploying equipment or developing new processes. For example, robotics can be part of a ‘lights out’ process.” The “lights out” concept that Henry refers to is the idea that robots do not need much artificial light to function if a work cell operates without humans. Lights-out production translates into less energy use, the epitome of the current green trend.

Automatic vacuum management saves energy by minimizing compressed air consumption in sealed systems, courtesy PIAB Vacuum Products.To go lights-out, integrators must incorporate the correct vision equipment for the application, maintains Henry. “Vision systems do not need much ambient light to function. While vision-enabled robotics cannot operate in complete darkness, they use much less light than if people were working in that environment,” Henry says. “A vision system only uses the amount of light it needs to accomplish the task.”

If a work cell is not using vision, the robot does not need electric light but is using sensors and other inputs to manage its processes and how to react to specific situations, says Henry.

Andrew Lovell, Applications Engineer with PIAB Vacuum Products (Hingham, Massachusetts) also sees reduced energy requirements through robotic-based manufacturing. “The movement of a robot can be very precisely controlled to eliminate wasted movement, when compared to manual assembly. The operator might leave the vacuum pump on when it is not needed.” Lovell agrees with Stäubli’s Chad Henry in his belief that robotics facilitate “lights-out” production. “In many applications, robots can operate in the dark. Robots do not require the same environment as a human does to function in.”

How is the trend toward green manufacturing impacting your company and the way you do business?

“The design of robotic work cells and their components are an important part of the trends toward green production,” says John Mazurkiewicz, Product Marketing Manager Servos and Motion Control at Baldor Electric Co. (Fort Smith, Arkansas). “Engineers designing work cells with absolute feedback devices such as servo motors is a green trend. When used with robotics, servo motors allow for tasks to be done faster with less energy.”

New stainless steel servo motor, courtesy Baldor Electric Co.Mazurkiewicz proclaims that absolute feedback devices save time, energy, materials and money. To illustrate, Mazurkiewicz says, “If a work cell looses power with traditional feedback devices like an incremental motor, operators have to go back to the work cell’s point of reference and begin the task over again. If an absolute feedback device looses power then regains power, operators only need to read it to know exactly where the robot is in its process.”

Mazurkiewicz goes on to say that the trend toward absolute devices will decrease machine downtime and improve productivity. “Most green trends typically take place first in Europe, where they are willing to try new technologies. In North America, we are more concerned with cost-savings.” Eventually, design engineers in North America look at green trends while reducing costs.

“Few companies are interested in conservation for conservation’s sake, but they are interested in going green if it offers a return on investment. New work cells that are more environmentally friendly and conserve energy would also save a lot of money,” observes Ellison’s John Burg.

Burg turns his attention to the use of coolants in robotic material and machining applications. “Coolants have been used for over a century to help increase tool life or reduce tool wear. The impact of coolants is not environmentally friendly, but producers of coolants are doing a lot of work to reduce that impact.” Burg adds, “Many material removal end-users are looking at how to dramatically reduce coolant use in their machining process. Reducing coolant use translates into not having to reclaim, reuse or dispose it.” Reducing, reusing and recycling are at the heart of going green.

What are the benefits of going green for your company and the environment?

Robotic handling of solar panels, courtesy of FANUC Robotics America Inc.“Going green helps FANUC re-imagine and reinvent our products and helps us stay nimble with the solutions we provide to support emerging green markets,” contends Christopher Blanchette, National Distribution Sales Account Manager with FANUC Robotics America Inc. (Rochester Hills, Michigan) “Going green provides a cleaner and more healthy environment for a sustainable future, which is a social aspect.“

Blanchette says that until recently, “The trend toward green manufacturing has been slow due to insufficient social pressure put on businesses to really push cost-competitive, environmentally friendly technologies.”

Taking a different tack, Greg Hollows says, “The benefits of going green for Edmund include the variety of opportunities to make a difference in the world and to provide for our employees. Making a dedicated effort to meet the need for green technologies allows Edmund to keep people employed in these uncertain economic times.”

Hollows continues, “Corporations need to be more responsible for what we have been given in the world. Edmund Optics believes we have a corporate responsibility to focus on green technologies and do what we can to help them in the marketplace.”

Likewise, Dan Shumaker, Market Research Manager at Motoman Inc. (West Carrollton, Ohio) sees the benefits of going green in manufacturing. “Going green presents potential new opportunities for growth for Motoman, both in terms of new products and marketing programs.” Shumaker proposes that, “Many green technologies will continue to experience strong growth, including wind power, solar power, fuel cells, and other technologies that reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Companies will continue to investigate methods for increasing productivity to accelerate cost parity with conventional sources of electricity in order to drive alternative energy adoption.”

“Robotic automation can be utilized at many steps in the manufacturing process, particularly in welding and material handling, as many of Motoman’s current customers in the renewable energy field have already discovered. We expect this trend to continue as Motoman serves the needs of solar, wind and other green industries,” Shumaker adds.

Seeing Green
The 2009 International Robot, Vision & Motion Control Show and Conference affords attendees an opportunity to look and learn about green technologies and other advances in manufacturing.

One session, “Robots and Vision in a Green Manufacturing World,” looks at how robotics can help fabricate green technologies, particularly alternative energy sources such as wind turbines, solar panels and fuel cells. This session is scheduled for Tuesday, June 9, 1:00-3:00 p.m.

PIAB will be among the businesses that will have a demonstration at the show. Andrew Lovell gives a brief description of what his company will have in store for visitors. “PIAB’s demonstrations will highlight the benefits of optimized robotic system design, and the effects on energy and performance. PIAB also will be spotlighting a new friction suction cup design, which has greater holding power with oily sheet metal.” Lovell says these new suction cups reduce the energy needed to handle oil-coated sheet metal in a manufacturing environment. “PIAB’s new suction cups perform at a high level for longer periods of time, keeping replacement costs to a minimum and reducing the waste associated with discarding old cups.”

The benefits of attending the Robot, Vision & Motion Control Show are numerous. Greg Hollows of Edmund Optics says, “We attend the show because it is an educational experience, and attending allows us to help people who want to use machine vision. Many potential end-users of machine vision do not understand its nuances and capabilities or how to mix and match products correctly to meet their needs.” Hollows says that users of machine vision need to understand how it functions to be confident that it will work.

Hollows cites another reason to attend the show saying, “Due to instability in the automotive sector, we want a chance to get feedback and find out what is happening on the ground level. Because economic events are happening so fast, we sometimes find difficulty getting enough detailed information of what is happening in the automotive sector.”

Hollows concludes stressing, “Edmund Optics has a feel for what is happening in the automotive industry, but talking directly to people is better. We want to understand what is gong on so that we can develop new products or go in a different direction to effectively meet our customer’s needs.”

Baldor’s John Mazurkiewicz states his company will debut some new products at the show. “Baldor recently introduced smaller motors, motors with stainless steel gear-heads, and a line of stainless steel servo motors. Because only a handful of companies offer stainless steel servo motors, we have found a market for such products in robotic food handling applications.” Baldor will demonstrate their stainless steel servos, which can withstand wash-down pressures of 1,500 pounds per square inch. Mazurkiewicz says the characteristics of stainless steel are different from an iron or steel housing surrounding the motor, both magnetically and thermally.

Go Green, Stay Green
The direction toward green manufacturing will prove to be a long-term trend. “Because the trend toward green manufacturing is emerging so rapidly, flexible robots are an excellent tool for manufacturing. Having robots as part of the production process, even in the early stages of development or refinement, helps reduce the time to market of green products,” says Christopher Blanchette of FANUC.

For additional details on the 2009 International Robot, Vision & Motion Control Show and Conference in Rosemont (Chicago), Illinois, USA, June 9-11, 2009, including show hours, conference agenda and registration, click: More.