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    Fabrication: Robots and Cobots
assist with dull, dirty and dangerous jobs while a nearby operator typically performs tasks that require manual skills.
Gone are the days of needing huge conveyors and fixed guarding that occupy large chunks of floor space. In most cases, today’s robots can locate parts from any orientation—with the help of 2D or 3D robot vision, for exam- ple. Vision systems enable robots to pick randomly oriented parts from bins, totes or any types of containers. Upon picking, a robot can reorient the part as needed, and quickly load it to a workholding device. When that por- tion of the operation completes, the robot transfers the part to the next task, enabling production to proceed at needed speeds without bottlenecks.
Another flexible robot solution designed to help manufacturers deal with capacity shortfalls and labor short- ages: mounting a robot to a mobile platform. Such platforms enable move- ment of robots to different machines on the plant floor, and quick setup for any number of tasks.
Possible in Low-Volume, High-Mix Operations
Even though today’s robots and cobots improve throughput, increase flexibility to tackle multiple operations and reduce operating costs, a wide gap still exists between manually tended machines and those automated with robots. Lights-out manufacturing remains a far-reaching goal for some metal formers and fabricators. Typical lights-out operations employ robots for large-batch/high-volume runs at night, without the need for human intervention, while smaller-batch lower-volume jobs run during the day with more staff available. However, a growing number of robotic solutions prove capable of handling low-volume, high-mix jobs typically found in smaller operations and job shops. Here, a robot handles different-sized parts in a family or group of parts, allowing for rapid changeover when the parts change. This technology continues to improve.
Robotic machine tending has revo-
Cobots, which by design are limited in power and force as compared to standard indus- trial robots, should be considered for tasks that must occur in proximity to humans, such as with this welding application.
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lutionized manufacturing in other ways, too, allowing manufacturers to increase overall equipment effectiveness. Once the robot loads a machine, it can per- form secondary processes such as deburring, cleaning, inspection and much more utilizing the same gripper or a quick tool changer if needed. And, we’ve seen more cases where manu- facturers produce their own specialized grippers and other end-of-arm tools for various applications (often with a big assist from additive manufacturing), thus adding bang to the robot buck.
Determining ROI Quantitatively and Qualitatively
The financial metrics for robotics and automation have improved signif- icantly over the years as robots and other automation devices have become smarter, more flexible and reliable. However, manufacturers new to automation and considering robots for the first time benefit from taking a tac- tical approach to ROI. Develop an automation strategy based on the com- petitive advantages that automation can bring to your organization.
Typically, ROI presentations are transaction-based, covering metrics and measures focused solely on the ability to reduce costs. A new trans-
formative-based approach to deter- mining the ROI for robots and automa- tion includes evaluating key benefits and opportunities such as:
• Enhanced process quality and reli- ability
• Better use of skilled workers, increased morale and employee engagement
• Improved insights from data col- lection
• Creation of a genuine transforma- tive experience for the entire company. The combination of qualitative measures with financial estimates makes it easier for corporate manage- ment to approve an investment in automation. Why? As the automation market evolves, manufacturing exec- utives have come to realize that the quantifiable cost savings achieved through automation represent just the
beginning of investment potential. Automated systems not only help manufacturers increase capacity and meet customer demands, they enhance the careers of the current workforce. Especially in today’s tight labor market, companies that invest in workforce development increase the likelihood that skilled employees will advance in their careers inhouse and be more like-
ly to stay.

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