When a manufacturing process includes a routine movement that occurs repeatedly, the repetitive motion is often a great job for a robot regardless of whether it's high-quality precision or a lower-quality task.
Welding and pick-and-place tasks are two areas where you often see robots in the manufacturing process. In welding, laying a bead requires a combination of art and science that robots handle easily. Pick-and-place tasks are also repetitive in nature: pick something up, complete a simple operation and then set it back down.
If you're wondering how robots could enhance your value stream, here are the main pros and cons to consider. First, let's look at the benefits of using robots in your manufacturing process:
1) Better quality and consistency: Once industrial robots have been correctly programmed, they are fairly predictable and precise, resulting in high quality without much variation. The robots increasingly used in surgery offer an extreme example of the precision and accuracy that's possible.
2) Maximum productivity and throughput: An industrial robot increases speed for manufacturing processes, in part by eliminating interruptions. Robots run 24/7, without breaks, shift changes or other interruptions. The speed and dependability of robots ultimately reduces the cycle time for an operation and maximizes the throughput.
3) Greater safety: Using robots for repetitive tasks means fewer risks of injury for workers. Even the people who oversee the robots don't have to be on the shop floor with them - they could oversee the process online, even remotely.
4) Reduced direct labor costs: The cost of having a person handle many operations is probably going to be more expensive than a robot, even with the high initial expense of this technology investment.
5) Keeping manufacturing in the United States: By now, many repetitive motions in U.S. manufacturing have been pushed off to countries with lower labor costs. Using robots to complete those operations in the U.S. keeps manufacturers here, leading to more jobs.
Some argue that robots are taking jobs away from U.S. workers, but that's not necessarily the case. Industrial robots aren't some kind of standalone work cell; they are typically integrated into a series of operations that requires human expertise. For example, you could have a robot welding parts, and then handing it off to a person for a task that requires the human brain's intuitive "if, then" kinds of thinking.
While these five advantages are compelling, there's a flip side to bringing robots into your manufacturing process. Here are three significant disadvantages to consider:
1) High initial investment: Robots typically require large upfront investments in hardware and software, as well as the costs of workforce training and education.
2) Expertise is scarce: Industrial robots need sophisticated programming, and while the number of people with this skillset is growing, it's currently limited. Programmers are in short supply and paid well, so it's important to also consider the personnel investments you'll need to make in expertise.
3) Ongoing costs: While robots reduce some labor costs, they introduce other ongoing expenses, such as preventive maintenance, troubleshooting and programming. Having those skills in-house would introduce costs that you're not accustomed to seeing.
You'll have to weigh the pros and cons for your particular situation, but for many companies, robots have an integral part to play in the entire value stream and the future of manufacturing innovation.
As robots become increasingly common in manufacturing and other industrial uses, the industrial Internet is also growing, with machine-to-machine communication systems driven by sensor data analysis.
When enough machines are communicating and able to change their own performance based on sensed conditions, an industrial robot will be able to recognize a change downstream and adjust to that variation. This concept should reach full maturity by 2025, revolutionizing the way we use robots in the manufacturing process.
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