By: Greg Selke | CEO

Most of us love the idea of having a robot to do chores for us. When people in social settings learn that I work with robots, they want to know if one is available to mow and trim their lawn, fold clothes or put away the dishes. This may all be possible in the future, but not quite yet.

In manufacturing there is strong interest in having robots take on tasks that humans have been doing. Many of these applications are repetitive and mundane tasks, without a lot of value add. Companies tell us that they are having a difficult time finding workers for these tasks. It is no wonder: if the worker is good and capable, why would they want to spend their workday doing repetitive and mundane tasks?

So just apply a robot – right?

It is usually not that simple. There are many companies that we visit where one or more robots are against a wall or in a back room because they failed to work in the intended application. At the same time, we see companies advertising “hire a robot and solve your labor problems!”.

A robot, by itself, is useless.

It is usually not that simple. There are many companies that we visit where one or more robots are against a wall or in a back room because they failed to work in the intended application. At the same time, we see companies advertising “hire a robot and solve your labor problems!”.

A robot at a basic level is just a programmable motion device. It can move within its design envelope, but by itself it can’t do anything. At a minimum something needs to be attached to the end of a robot’s arm to make it useful. It can be some type of a gripping device, or perhaps a camera for vision inspection. Most applications require more to make the robot truly useful and able to replace the labor performed by a human.

Humans are truly amazing! We can reach, bend, rotate, see (in 3D), feel, think, and make decisions. Many applications that seem simple may require most or all these capabilities! Consider a simple machine tending application. The task might be to place a part into a fixture and then press two-hand buttons to start a cycle. The machine will complete its operation, at which point the part is removed from the fixture and the cycle repeated. Easy, right?

Let’s think about what really happens. In many applications the parts arrive in a box or bin from a previous operation. The box or bin must be placed to a position where the worker can reach the parts. This is done either by another worker delivering the bins, or by the machine tending worker.

The parts are unstructured. The worker reaches in the bin and, either by feel or by sight, selects and grips the next part. The worker, either by feel or by sight will orient the part so that it will go into the fixture. The worker may also examine the part for defects. A defective part will be rejected into a reject bin. Otherwise the part is placed into the fixture and the machine cycle started.

When the cycle is complete, the worker removes the part from the fixture. It might be visually inspected again, and then placed into an output bin. Full output bins are removed either by another worker or by the machine tending worker, and then replaced with an empty bin. In this example the human will have used the senses of touch and sight, as well as mobility and reaching, all controlled by a complex brain.

A robot can certainly perform this task but will require ancillary equipment to make it possible. Let’s call the total application a “Work Cell”.

The Robot Work Cell will require a means to bring the product to the robot. This might be a conveyor, shelves, a mobile robot, or other means. A 3D camera with software designed for selecting parts from a box or bin will be positioned above the parts. The camera and software will identify the next part to be picked and will send instructions to the robot, indicating the position and orientation of the part as well as the trajectory to the part. The robot will be equipped with a gripper, selected for the parts that will be picked.

It might be necessary for the robot to place the part to an intermediate position in order to then pick it up for proper orientation into the fixture in the machine.

Palletizer working on manufacturing conveyor.

The Work Cell will need to have a place for the robot to put parts after they have been processed. This might be an output bin, a conveyor, magazines, or other devices.

If part inspection is necessary, an inspection camera can be placed at a position where the robot can present the part.

All of this sounds complicated, but it isn’t. With the technologies available today, ONExia’s team has designed and built work cells for all sorts of applications including machine tending, parts machining, dispensing, part inspection, packaging, part transfer, and many others

Our job is to make robots useful!