Lou Kren Lou Kren
Senior Editor

Robot Retrofits: When is it Time?

February 27, 2023

Amidst a winter storm on the night of December 25, 1776, General George Washington led a column of Continental Army troops across the Delaware River to Trenton in the province of New Jersey, in preparation for a surprise attack. The following morning, Washington and his men took the fight to Hessian soldiers sided with the British. By nightfall on December 26, the attack’s success delivered sorely needed momentum, ultimately leading to victory in the American Revolution. 

Intro-Robot-Retrofit-Before-After-YaskawaAnother revolutionary event would occur in Trenton nearly two centuries later. In 1959, crews installed the 2700-lb. Unimate #001, a prototype industrial robot, on an assembly line at a General Motors diecasting plant. Within only a few years, hundreds of Unimate 1900s dotted shop floors, and the industrial world would never look the same.

Today, more than a half century after Trenton’s second revolutionary event, robotic automation spurs dizzying productivity rises in manufacturing operations worldwide, offering rapid, repeatable and tireless action, often in tasks deemed too dangerous or monotonous for humans. Though tireless, robots won’t run forever. 

For the most part, with proper maintenance, an industrial robot will remain in service for 10 to 15 yr. Much depends on the harshness of the environment and application, as well as the terms surrounding supplier hardware, control and software support. In many cases, retrofitting can extend—and even double—the life of these shopfloor workhorses.

When can a retrofit pay off? Answering that question is Steve Klopfenstein, senior manager of retrofit systems at Yaskawa America, Inc., Motoman Robotics Division, who recently authored a blog post on the topic, www.motoman.com/en-us/about/ blog/knowing-when-to-retrofit-your-robot. Klopfenstein and his team, located regionally throughout the United States, retrofit peripherals as well as robots, providing upgrades to extend automation life significantly. Through the team’s experiences and expertise, Klopfenstein offers valuable retrofit advice for MetalForming’s readers.

Upgrade Quality and Efficiency

Suppose a robotic welding operation, for instance, fails to meet standards for part quality. Perhaps this calls for an upgrade to a new power source or welding torch, as these items can age out and become frail, which impacts quality. Reach out to the robot or automation-system OEM or integrator, where a new solution often can be identified over the phone. End users in many cases can install much of this new equipment on their own.

Robot-Retrofit-Harness-Retrofit-Yaskawa“We’ve seen, within the past 5 to 10 yr., huge improvements in welding equipment and software, and fabricators want the highest-quality and most efficient welds for their customers,” Klopfenstein tells MetalForming. “In most cases, this improved technology can be interfaced to older robots without issue, save for perhaps some communication modifications to derive the most from that new equipment and software.”

Many technologies for handling, painting and other tasks similarly can be retrofitted into a current setup to decrease cycle time and optimize process efficiency, he notes. Using new, higher-quality peripherals also can help extend robot functionality and asset longevity.

End-of-arm tooling (EOAT) represents a unique area in the retrofit equation, as most of that is specific to inhouse and integrator expertise. However, if inhouse and integrator inspections don’t find fault with EOAT and related jigs and fixtures, problems may be elsewhere.

“A robot in most cases has six joints, and these joints can show some level of wear,” Klopfenstein says. “That’s where a robot rebuild comes in. We’ll look at each individual joint and determine where deflection originates, and can rebuild equipment to remove that.”

To reduce downtime, a robot can be swapped quickly with an upgraded robot, which eases connection of electrical and control services.

“A robot provider can assess where the existing robot sits in its lifecycle, and from that, perhaps a new robot makes sense,” says Klopfenstein. 

Simplified Modernization for Safety’s Sake

In some cases, changes to processes or perhaps an unfortunate incident require upgrades to automation equipment. Here, a risk assessment likely is in order, as American National Standards Institute (ANSI) safety standards must be followed when upgrading original equipment. Upgrades may include the addition of safety programmable logic controllers (PLCs) to replace older safety relays. PLCs allow for easier modifications down the road as needed.

“I've been doing this work since the mid-1990s, and more than any other part of robot controls, safety circuits have changed the most,” Klopfenstein offers. “The past 6 yr. or so we’ve seen a focus on safety circuits becoming more like a PLC—not necessarily hardwired. This allows for easier changes to safety circuits. For example, when adding a light curtain, another e-stop, a pull chain or any peripheral that attaches to a controller to stop the robot, safety PLCs allow for simple modification.”

Save Money

Manufacturers running lights out may want to consider changing key automation components every couple of years. Doing so ensures use of the most energy-efficient equipment while helping prevent unnecessary downtime due to old or broken equipment. Even seemingly small retrofits can bring big dividends.

“A fan, for example, generates a lot of amp draw,” says Klopfenstein. “A retrofit can be as simple as adding controls to shut off fans when not needing the additional cooling. This can bring substantial savings over time, especially if a manufacturer runs dozens or hundreds of robots.”

Optimize Robot Performance

Maintenance is a must for prolonging the lifecycle of a robot. A strict maintenance schedule combined with upgrades as necessary help guarantee an optimal return on robot investment. At times, a complete disassembly, cleaning and rebuild of the robot—including replacement of all wiring harnesses and bearings—may be in order. Every robot should come with a preventive-maintenance schedule, including annual greasing procedures and other hour-based tasks.

“Pay attention to the robot manual and stay on top of maintenance,” Klopfenstein says. “Yaskawa, for example, can monitor preventive maintenance for a manufacturer via its service team. Maintaining the equipment is the name of the game in extending a robot’s lifecycle.”

Turn Old Into New

“Utilize as much of the older equipment as possible and bring it up to date,” concludes Klopfenstein, stressing that robot retrofits bring big benefits. “Many users don’t realize that they can retrofit new controls on an older system. Recently, we retrofitted a welding cell—at least 10 yr. old—that has two robots and a positioner. We installed two new robots that control the positioner, but rebuilt the positioner—all at a fraction of the cost for a new cell.”

The lesson here from Klopfenstein: Look at all options, including a retrofit, before deciding to replace an entire cell.
From the robot revolution begun in Trenton, NJ, comes a robot evolution in the form of retrofitting, which promises potential to significantly improve processes and safety at a reasonable cost. MF

Industry-Related Terms: Form, Functionality, Hardware, Prototype, Run
View Glossary of Metalforming Terms


See also: Yaskawa America, Inc.

Technologies: Pressroom Automation


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