How Robots Benefit Machine Shops and Machinery Manufacturers
Machine shops using CNC machines and machinery manufacturers face unprecedented demand for an ever greater variety of products and capabilities. Meanwhile, expectations continue to rise for quick turn-around time. How can these challenges be met when labor shortages are rampant? Robotics can provide a variety of solutions.
In this article, we explore the subject through the following topics:
- The Current State of Robotics Adoption by Machine Shops and Machinery Manufacturers
- Factors Driving Robotic Automation
- How Flexible, Mobile Robots Help Machine Shops And Manufacturing
- Typical Applications For Robots In Metal-Working And Machinery Manufacturing
- Factors Preventing Automation and How to Overcome These Issues
In the 6th Annual State of Smart Manufacturing Report by Plex, the surveyors found that 16% of large manufacturers are using collaborative robots. Only 4% of small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) have adopted cobots.
SMBs account for 98.6% of manufacturing businesses in the USA according to Score.org, with similar percentages no doubt holding true worldwide. According to Dun & Bradstreet, no major industries dominate the machine shop industry. The 50 largest US companies have a combined revenue of only 10% of total revenue from this industrial sector. More than 80% of US machine shops have fewer than 20 employees.
These small companies are characterized by high-mix, low-volume (HMLV) production. Robots that serve this sector must be highly flexible and perform many different tasks with little setup time. For example, one job at a machine shop might involve a polishing operation. Another might require deburring. To switch from one task to another means changing the End-of-Arm-Tooling (EoAT). And it will require a different set of movements by the robot arm. To be a useful tool in a HMLV environment, the robot must be retooled and reprogrammed quickly.
Until recently, most industrial robots did not answer to this description.
The auto industry, for example, has the highest rate of adoption of robotics. Automobile manufacturing is characterized by low-mix, high-volume production – the opposite of machine shops. For the automotive industry, there are about 1,300 robots per 10,000 employees. Outside of automotive, manufacturing has fewer than 10 robots per 10,000 employees.
Why is this? The reasons have a lot to do with the evolution of robotics technology. Complex programming and long setup times are acceptable when the variation in pieces and processes is slight from day to day, and there is a high volume of parts to be processed.
For HMLV operations, there may be several changes in products in a single day.
In addition, there are floor space considerations. Most automotive robots must be fenced off from employees for safety reasons. Smaller companies may not have the space to accommodate such requirements.
To overcome this problem, modern robot suppliers equip their cobots with numerous sensors that enable them to work side by side with human operators. When the cobot senses a person is coming too close for safety, it will stop.
Are you considering bringing automation into your machine shop or manufacturing operations? It's not always obvious where to start when tackling the question of robotics. You know your operation, but you may not have an overview of what's available in terms of automation options. Talking with a HowToRobot expert can help.
Many factors are driving the adoption of robotics by the metal-working and machinery manufacturing sector. Some of those issues include:
- Unprecedented labor shortages – over the next 10 years, over 600,000 machine operator jobs will go unfilled.
- The tight labor market impels increased labor costs.
- Profit margins are being squeezed. Higher productivity is needed.
- Market demand for even higher variability and quick turn-around times
Modern, flexible, mobile cobots have advantages over CNC machines in a high-mix, low-volume production environment. However, it is not a question of one versus the other. You can combine robots with CNC machines to achieve greater productivity. Here are some of the benefits of using robots and cobots for machinery manufacturers and machine shops:
Probably the most significant advantage to robots is their versatility. CNC machines excel at specific jobs like drilling, tapping, milling, etc. One robot can do all these things and more.
The majority of CNC machines have 3 or 4 degrees of freedom of motion. Industrial robots can move along more complex paths than most CNC machines. Articulated robot arms typically have 6 degrees of freedom. That means you're able to machine any shape without limitations - even ones with complicated angles.
Quick Setup Time
Small manufacturers and machine shops may lack robotic expertise. And that can be seen as an almost impossible obstacle. However, advances in technology have completely changed the picture. Modern cobots can be shown the steps of a task using an intuitive human interface. Part of the process may include having the operator manually move the robot arm into position to perform an operation, then move it to the next position, and so on. Fine adjustments are done with an intuitive "teaching pendant." The operator can "show" the robot what to do in this way.
Operators without previous robotics experience can quickly become adept at configuring robots to complete new tasks.
A great advantage to modern cobots is they can easily be moved from one workstation to another. And the cobot can perform a different function at each location. One workstation might need a machine to be tended. Others could be polishing, pick-and-place, grinding, etc.
Although a robot may ride on a mobile cart, sometimes such a cart is not rigid enough for machining operations. The solution is to install docking stations on the floor. The cart can be quickly locked into place in the docking station, providing superior stability.
The most accurate CNC machines are more precise than robot arms. Rigidity requirements may be too great for cobots to perform some operations for steel or titanium. However, depending on the specifications, a robot arm can execute well for softer metals like aluminum or thinner workpieces like sheet metal.
That said, there are many jobs for which the robot arm will be sufficiently accurate. And for those applications that would otherwise require a human operator, the robot arm will be more precise.
To assist you in getting the answers you need about robotics, HowToRobot provides independent advisory services. Once you've reached out to us and gotten a consultant assigned to you, your advisor will review your operations with you to discover where automation makes the most sense. Your HowToRobot advisor can aid you in calculating how much you could save financially and what the ROI will be.
Most cobots can work on much larger pieces than CNC machines. A medium-sized industrial robot will have a work envelope of around 7 to 8 cubic meters. You can readily add external axes to accommodate even larger workpieces.
A larger workspace means a shop can take on more kinds of jobs and perform some operations not previously possible.
Automating Simple, Repetitive, Low-Value Tasks
Most CNC machines require an operator to load blanks into the workspace, remove finished pieces, and stack them. This is a repetitive, low-value task that robots do very well. Using robots for machine tending frees people to do other higher-value jobs requiring human intelligence. And the people in your shop become more productive.
Packing parts into cartons and palletizing are other examples of repetitive tasks at which robots excel. Employees will be happy to be freed from such dull work. And you run less of a risk of workers sustaining repetitive motion injuries. Injuries can be very costly and harm operator morale. The average cost of a workplace repetitive motion injury in the U.S. is $40,000. Many such injuries require lengthy recovery times.
In the past, implementing robotics was a prohibitively expensive endeavour, preventing smaller companies from investing in automation the way larger competitors could. As technology has improved, however, the cost has come down. What's more, new pricing options have become available. Robots-as-a-Service (RaaS) is a very affordable option for many small firms. Rather than making a big capital expenditure, a firm can pay a small amount over time.
The RaaS concept also allows for ongoing improvements in the robotics. With machine learning, the robots become smarter and more capable over time. And those upgrades are already factored into the ongoing cost. Such continuous improvement is a feature not available with traditional CNC machines.
Here are some of the applications for cobots in machine shops and machinery manufacturing:
- Machine tending
- Metal forming
- Painting and finishing
Many issues can stand in the way of adopting robotics in your company. One concern might be not seeing the value of robotics for your operations. You may find it helpful to talk with people who have seen companies similar to yours successfully implement robotics. Although discussing things with vendors can be valuable, sometimes a more impartial viewpoint is needed.
To help in assessing the value of a robotics solution, HowToRobot offers an online investment calculator to assist in estimating savings and ROI.
One of our customers commented, "We used to think that robots and automation solutions were out of the question for a smaller company like us. This program has completely changed our view on automation. When there is a structured approach to follow and advisors to trust, we don't have to be the robot experts. Now we know what we can achieve from automation – and how to get there."
You may know exactly what you want, yet it is still time-consuming to find relevant vendors and contact each of them. To help with this, HowToRobot has the world's largest directory of robot suppliers. You can search our directory for your application and get a list of relevant vendors in no time. And you can use HowToRobot to get quotes so you can compare prices on anything robot-related.
Perhaps you have an application in mind, but you are unsure if the technology is mature and exists to address it. Or, you might be unclear how to translate your needs into proper requirements for suppliers. You can reach out and confer with an unbiased and knowledgeable advisor who can provide assistance.