Yellow robot arm for industry isolated included clipping pathby Michael Griffith
Manufacturing Technology Engineer, NWIRC

Owning and managing a manufacturing business presents ever-changing challenges. Suppliers, customers, employees and other stakeholders can pull an owner or manager in many directions, but available constancy may be in the form of a collaborative robot. Collaborative robotics is becoming more widely available, affordable, and flexible to meet the needs of small manufacturers for a multitude of applications. This emerging technology is rapidly evolving and geared to improve accuracy, consistency, and quality.

Industrial robotic systems, common on automotive factory lines and in welding applications, have been around for decades. These fixed robotic systems, which are task specific; caged off from human interaction; and expensive to repurpose at the end of a product’s life cycle, are of little use to small manufacturers where processes can change frequently.

Conversely, collaborative or flexible robotics are designed to potentially work alongside humans. They are safe; accurate and consistent; easy to program, operate, and maintain; and can be affordably re-tooled for a new operation. Improved robotic technology has led to a 29% increase in worldwide sales of robotics from 2013 to 2014 .1 Automotive and electrical/electronics manufacturers continue to drive this global increase in sales. However, as technology improves, costs decrease, and robotic speed and productivity increase, applications for small manufacturers broaden. Boston Consulting Group estimates that due to improved performance and falling costs, annual unit sales could double by 2025.2

Small manufacturers, including those in fabricated metal products, chemicals, plastics, foods and others, are currently employing these flexible robots to
perform applications, such as:

• Pick and place raw material for an operation

• Remove, transfer, inspect, and stack or pack material after an operation has been performed

• Kitting parts to be assembled

• Small parts assembly

• Other material handling, including robotic lift assist or mobile robots moving material from warehouse to staging through production and on to shipping

Benefits of integrating robotics into a manufacturing operation can include increased throughput, reduced operating costs, reduced production downtime, improved quality and in some cases an improved process, either with or without automation. The greatest benefit of implementing robotics can be shifting employees from repetitive, tedious or hazardous tasks to more value-added operations.

Major manufacturers of collaborative robots include KUKA, Universal Robotics, Rethink Robotics, ABB and Fanuc. Although the price of a base robot, such as Rethink Robotics “Baxter”, can start at $25,000, the total cost of ownership can be three to nine times as much of the base price. Additional safety measures, sensing, tooling, system integration, training, validation and maintenance costs all add to the base robot price. Calculating this total cost of ownership is important when considering whether a robotics system is financially feasible.

The National Institute for Standards and Technology Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST MEP) / NIST Engineering Labs recently hosted a Collaborative Robotics Workshop for Small Manufacturers. This workshop brought together small manufacturers from across the county, automation service providers, and NIST representatives to discuss small manufacturers’ needs and barriers regarding robotics implementation, and how to collectively overcome these barriers to improve operations. The outcome of the workshop will be a framework to increase performance of robotics offering long-term benefits for small manufacturers.

Contact your NWIRC Strategic Business Advisor to learn more about collaborative robotics and the impact these systems can have on your operations.