Flexible automation, robotics at Automate

Automate 2022 in Detroit strongly emphasized flexible automation as companies seek ways to address the supply chain and labor shortages exacerbated by COVID-19 and other world events.

By Chris Vavra June 17, 2022
Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

After being away for three years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Automate 2022 returned in a new location (Detroit) and wasn’t co-located with ProMat in Chicago. The show, coordinated by the Association to Advance Automation (A3), expanded emphasis on automation, robotics and workforce development.

All three topics were big issues before the COVID-19 pandemic and remain so. If anything, those three topics were even more prevalent as other world events, such as the semiconductor shortage and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, are causing other challenges.

Companies are looking for solutions to problems because of the supply chain bottlenecks and the lack of qualified or willing personnel at their facilities. Something has to fill the void and keep businesses running. Many people in attendance are looking to automation—and especially robotics—to give them short-term relief and longer term answers.

Manufacturers are adjusting to customers’ needs, expanding services beyond the point of sale.

“We don’t want to just sell robots. We want to work with companies and integrators,” said Pamela Summers, marketing communications manager at Mitsubishi Electric Automation Inc. “We want to partner with our customers and provide any services they might need.”

It’s a far cry from the days when everything was siloed off. Manufacturers are realizing benefits from a wider set of product and service offerings—even when there isn’t a supply chain or skills gap crisis. They must get creative to stay ahead of the curve. Automation is happening, and those aware of the situation are doing whatever they can to secure day-to-day operations for the short- and long-term.

Manufacturing flexibility is more important than ever

Most major booths had a robot of some kind. Robots were playing chess, welding, painting, and doing a variety of pick-and-place tasks. While the robots were programmed to do one thing for the purposes of the show, the manufacturers emphasized they were looking to help the customer any way they could. It’s a far cry from the days when robots were fixed in design and purpose. Now, within reason, robots are being used in the same way as humans: Available as needed.

“We want to have a flexible solution that can operate on any type of manufacturing floor. We want to fit the customer’s needs rather than the other way around,” said Kristian Hulgard, general manager at OnRobot. “With our whole value proposition, flexibility is a big part. It gives the user a longer-term investment.”

Tyler Pence, an area sales manager at Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR), said its emphasis on flexibility extends beyond the manufacturing floor.

“We’re focused on logistics and palletizing, but we’re also looking at places like hospitals, medical facilities and other places that aren’t immune to labor shortages,” he said. “It’s everywhere. Some of these places just need things moved from point A to point B, and they can’t find people for it.”

Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

Automation brings humans and robots together

Collaborative robots, or cobots, are robots designed to work safely with humans without requiring a safety cage to keep the two sides separated, depending on the application. While there were cages for certain applications, such as welding and painting, seeing autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) or automated guided vehicles (AGVs) moving freely was not an uncommon sight. Their ability to move without human intervention frees up workers to complete other tasks. Technology advances such as 3D vision cameras, sensors and GPS tags make robots safer and easier to operate autonomously.

These advances are crucial to improving automation, which is critical for manufacturers. Everyone from the top-down needs to get on board and the technology advances make it easier for companies and workers to buy in.

“We don’t have to be afraid of automation. It should be a natural part of the process. Let the operator become a robot technician,” said Cathy Powell, communications manager at Fanuc America.

By giving the worker a new position that is more involved and less menial, they will become a vital part of the company’s operation.

Todd Graves, CTO at Seegrid, in his presentation “AMRs and the Human Workforce: Working Together for a Future-Proof Partnership,” summed it up by saying: “If you take workers out of the dull jobs and put them in valuable jobs, they will drive the continuous improvement.”

Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

The robots and automation technologies and concepts—often tied together by Industry 4.0 and Big Data—are there to help manufacturers. In the end, though, it will come down to the one core necessity for manufacturing: the people who will always be the company’s foundation.

Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology, cvavra@cfemedia.com.

Author Bio: Chris Vavra is senior editor for WTWH Media LLC.