The traditional way to set up a factory line is to buy or build a machine that does a specific task, find a safe place for it, and install a conveyor from that machine to the next one. An uncoiler feeds aluminum through a lubricator, for example, and then on to a cupping press. The uncoiler, the lubricator, the cupping press — and all the other machines along the line — do their jobs with no concern for their human operators. The operators are shielded from the machines, and their work is in many ways driven by the machines, or at least by the set up.
That’s fine for a giant processing plant making millions of beer cans.
But there are more manufacturers than ever requiring flexibility that doesn’t come with the standard set up. Consumer demands have been driving changes in manufacturing toward shorter product runs, greater customization, and increased energy efficiency. This requires a nimble approach to setting up a factory line, because change is the constant.
At the same time, economic pressures are increasing automation for smaller companies as well as larger ones. And a smaller manufacturer may have an even greater need for flexibility. After all, the investment in an uncoiler, a lubricator, and a cupping press is enormous. Having to have separate specialized machines for every possible task is a real barrier to entry.
Makers of cobots — collaborative robots designed to work with human beings — think that they have the solution. Cobots, built with the capacity to learn new tasks, can be taught to do new things by their operators. The way they do their tasks can be improved, using the special insights of the operators. Cobots can be a way of taking the expert knowledge of the human operators and integrating it into the machinery.
At the same time, the cobots have insights of their own. They can tell how fast a human being does a task, very accurately and consistently. This information can be used to make the human being’s work more efficient. Robots with machine learning capabilities can also identify ways that they can make their own work more efficient.
The relationship between a robot like this and its human operator will be very different from a human’s relationship with an uncoiler. It could be empowering.
In the meantime, if you need support with Rexroth electric drive and motion control, we’re the first people you should call. We’re experts with Rexroth servos, drives, and controls, whether you use legacy components or the newest iterations.