Area Development
{{RELATEDLINKS}}At Rio Tinto’s West Angelas mine in Australia, large automated Komatsu trucks are moving tons of earth thereby saving $100,000 per truck annually in operating costs. Meanwhile, in the U.S., warehouse robots scurry down aisles to locate goods or parts, as directed by their human controller, and return them to a pallet for loading and shipping, while saving time, reducing injuries, and cutting costs. It is all part of a robotics revolution that is proliferating to the everyday operations of more and more businesses.

Used by Companies Large and Small
“In the past, only large companies with numerous repetitive tasks, such as automotive manufacturers, could afford robotics. Today, efficient, cost-effective robots are available for both mid-sized and small companies for low-volume projects or parts,” says Justin Percio business manager for the automated welding segment of Lincoln Electric in Cleveland, Ohio.

“Our robotic welding cells serve a wide variety of industries — from offshore drilling to wind power and from shipbuilding to heavy fabrication. Companies looking for ways to increase output and achieve quality improvement at the same time are turning to robotic welding systems,” Percio points out. “In the past, automotive companies and other large manufacturers used robotics to do one thing or insert one part millions of times over the years. Today, robots are flexible enough to work on a large variety of parts or tasks cost-effectively. You can cut cycle time 20 percent to 60 percent depending on the complexity of the part,” he adds.

Expanded Use in the Manufacturing Process
Cotterman Company — a Croswell, Michigan, manufacturer of various industrial ladders, work platforms, and lift platforms — teamed up with Lincoln Electric and AccuBilt of Jackson, Michigan, to introduce robotics into its manufacturing process.

“Our challenge was to increase our flexibility and reduce manufacturing turnaround time in order to fulfill orders in a matter of days,” stressed Nick Valore, Cotterman’s vice president. “We wanted to reduce finish goods inventories and make small batches for immediate delivery. We have four manufacturing plants across the country [that allow us to] supply our customers with the product they want, when they want it. This also helps reduces freight costs, inventory costs, and freight damage and delays.”

Cotterman’s ladders and platforms use a wide variety of parts combinations depending on the customer’s requirements. The flexible tooling of the robotic welding system is capable of identifying the ladder configuration and the parts required to build each specific ladder. The system can handle thousands of different parts combinations. In turn, increased productivity helps Cotterman deliver a first-class product at a competitive price.

Valore also points out, “While our biggest competitor buys from China and has to maintain inventory, we build a quality product to order and get it to the customer quickly. Robotics help us achieve this strategy. Conventional wisdom states robotics are used to replace workers. In our case, we have actually increased our work force since we started using robotics as a tool to increase productivity, improve quality, and cut costs. The increased use of robotics played a role in the 24,000-square-foot expansion of our Michigan manufacturing plant.”

Next: Robotics in Logistics/Distribution Settings and its Impact on Facility Layouts

{{RELATEDLINKS}}Use in Logistics/ Distribution Settings
“There are a number of new trends in robotics,” says Dr. Henrik Christensen, director of Robotics at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “First of all, we see a spreading of use from big companies to smaller firms. Second, the new robotics have a greater degree of flexibility and can perform more complex tasks. Third, the lower prices of new entries into the robotics lines have made them accessible to all size firms. Finally, robotics have moved from the manufacturing floor to logistics and distribution supply settings.”

Dr. Christensen makes reference to the new robot, Baxter, being debuted by Rethink Robotics of Boston, Massachusetts, which is designed for easy use and can be put to work right out of the box with minimum setup. Baxter promises to revolutionize manufacturing and comes with an enticing price of $22,000 — versus $100,000–$300,000 for the typical industrial robot plus programming costs.

Rethink Robotics: Meet Baxter

Baxter comes pre-programmed to perform certain tasks such as sorting parts, but can be taught to load, unload, grasp, and perform other mundane tasks as well. The vision capability via cameras allows Baxter to learn tasks after being shown how to do them once. Closer to an Android than the typical robot, Baxter has two-arms and a head with facial expressions. Dr. Christensen also notes that Kiva Systems LLC, of North Reading, Massachusetts, is revolutionizing the warehousing, distribution center, and fulfillment process with its robotic handling systems. Autonomous mobile robots and control software shorten cycle times, reduce labor requirements, and drive down costs. “Having an employee walk back and forth to get parts or packages is not very efficient. With the Kiva System, a single employee can control multiple robots that retrieve the items desired, stack them on pallets, and shrink wrap the pallets — all without heavy lifting by humans,” explains Dr. Christensen.

Impacting Facility Layouts and More

“This also impacts facility layout and requirements,” Dr. Christensen adds. “For example, robots can travel down narrower aisles and reach higher than humans or humans with forklifts, thus reducing the footprint needed for warehousing and facilities cost. You can build up rather than out.”

Dr. Christensen’s predicts an enormous amount of growth in robotics in the next few years. “The lower price-points mean any company will be able to afford the advantages of robotics. They help optimize the system with 24/7 operation, incur less downtime, and eliminate errors.”

Even venture capitalists are getting into the action. This past June, Russian Dmitry Grishin launched Grishin Robotics, New York City’s first venture capital firm strictly devoted to the mass market of personal robotics. The strategy revolves around the scenario where robots not only appear on the factory floor, but also in the executive suite and home.

The nation’s education system is gearing up for the robotics revolution too. “We work closely with schools to make sure the students’ experience is as close to the actual workplace as possible,” says Lincoln Electric’s Percio. “Our creative engineering team developed a folding welding envelope so it can enter a classroom for instructional purposes. Our 3-D virtual reality welding simulator used in schools gives the student a real-time, hands-on experience as close to the actual robotic work as possible.”

Robotics point to the future, but savvy companies are finding ways to leverage the revolution now.