Robots solve assembly line production challenges

Inside Machines: An electronics manufacturer with double-digit product rejection rates used a collaborative robot that was controlled and monitored in a cloud-connected system to handle soldering, drilling, silicone dispensing, and light assembly. This helped rejects fall to near zero and increased production efficiency almost fivefold.

By Brian Dillman August 21, 2017

Use of robotics helped an electronics manufacturer reduce rejects to near zero and increase productivity nearly fivefold. The company Creating Revolutions makes a customer service paging system for the hospitality industry. The hockey puck-sized communication disc is designed to connect guests with their waiter through their smart phone wirelessly. Assembling the disc is a complex task that requires accuracy and repeatability.

"The problem is you can’t efficiently repeat a specific process the exact same way over and over again as a human being," said Einar Rosenberg, CEO of Creating Revolutions. Rosenberg was looking for an automation solution that could meet both quality and quantity requirements.

"Those two elements are always at a battle with each other. We looked at about 40 different robot companies, and most of them didn’t have a very good way to program them; they required too many things for the environment; or they were too big or too jerky," says Rosenberg, who concluded his research by choosing a UR3 collaborative robot from Universal Robots.

Safe collaboration with humans

The robots are classified as collaborative due to their built-in safety system that makes the robot arm automatically stop operating if it encounters objects or people in its route. This feature enables humans and robots to work side-by-side without the fencing that usually is required with traditional industrial robots.

"We need to have humans feeding the robot parts. The safety features of the robot actually simplifies a lot of that, so that we feel more secure about our most valuable asset-which is not the robot but our people," Rosenberg said.

Pays the robot by the hour

The robot was integrated in Creating Revolutions’ assembly line by Hirebotics, a Universal Robots Certified System Integrator that lets startups like Creating Revolutions rent cobots by the hour without upfront capital expenditures. "We’re a startup so we couldn’t afford a very expensive robot," says Rosenberg. "With a traditional robot and a traditional setup of somebody in-house, the expense and the complexity-we are basically changing all of that.

Spreading silicone with a twist

The robot handles two cycles: first, the robot checks row by row that the aluminum housing parts are lined correctly on a tray. The robot then picks up the part, places it into a clamp, picks up a silicone injector and aligns the silicone on the inside edge of the housing. Placing down the injector, the robot picks and places an acrylic disc on top of the silicone.

"The robots then does a process we call ‘the twist,’ because, no matter what, we found that the silicone never reaches a perfect circle. To spread it equally, the robot uses a suction device to press down and twist the acrylic disc, thereby spreading the silicone perfectly before placing the assembled part back on the tray," Rosenberg said.

Five-fold efficiency gain

The other cycle that the robot is preprogrammed for is the drilling and soldering process. The robot picks a disc with a copper base out of a dispenser and places it into an optical laser sensor that aligns the disc, then the robot places the disk into a holder, affixing it by closing two clamps.

"Next step is the robot grabbing a drill from the utility belt, followed by sort of peck drilling process, because the acrylic shatters if you just force it. The robot is sensitive enough to basically pop it in until it makes a perfect hole," Rosenberg said.

With drilling complete, the robot places the drill back into the utility belt and releases one of the clamps, allowing an open area where the soldering iron with an automatic soldering feeder can come in. Back at the utility belt, the robot grabs the soldering iron, putting three points of pre-soldering right on the copper and around the hole that was drilled. Once that step is completed, the robot flushes out any debris by puffing a bit of air, unlatches the second clamp, then grabs the disc and places it into another tube with completed parts. As a result, pre-soldering has increased the efficiency of the process almost fivefold, according to Rosenberg.

Robot: a collaborative third hand

Rosenberg explained that before the robot, the manual soldering process really required the operator to have three hands. "We have these boards where you’d have to clamp the wires, because the human being had to hold a soldering pin and the solder wire. Now the robot places the pre-solder in exactly the positions where you’re supposed to be soldering those wires," he said. "So instead of having to also hold the soldering wire, the human being is able to take the disc, hold the wire in one hand instead of a clamp; and then simply solder. The robot made it much cleaner and easier for everybody; it’s truly a collaborative approach."

Quick robot integration

It only took a few weeks from when Creating Revolutions first got in contact with Hirebotics until the robot was ordered, installed, and programmed. Matt Bush, co-founder of Hirebotics, explained that quick deployment is imperative. Collaborative robots help in that regard because they usually don’t require additional safety fencing to perform their tasks.

"When we get to a customer site, we can adapt the robot very quickly. We can grab the robot arm, put it into free-drive mode and "teach it" by physically moving it through the path we want it to run without having to come up with hundreds of way points and pre-program them," Bush said.

Modification to existing programs is also simple, Rosenberg said. "We needed to change from a two-drill process to a one-drill process. So Hirebotics sent us the software modified, we put it on a USB and uploaded it to the robot; and ‘bam’-they were able to fix it. In an hour or two they finished the code, and that same day we were able to totally change how the robot was doing everything."

Smartphone robot monitoring

Hirebotics also provided a smartphone interface designed to enable customers to monitor their robot’s performance as well as receive ongoing technical support. Performance data is streamed from the robot as events occur and can be monitored in the Hirebotics mobile app with real-time charts for quick insight into exact production numbers. Web cameras show what’s happening on the production line, allowing customers as well as Hirebotics to monitor activities at all times. Increased mobile visibility into the process is a tenet of Industrie 4.0."By gathering details on the number of units that the robot produces in a given period of time, we can combine all data and create realistic, very accurate forecasts of our production needs, such as how many humans are needed and what we need to focus on to produce at optimal levels," Rosenberg said.

Hirebotics also monitored the robot’s performance in real-time for any glitches. "We know, live, from anywhere in the world exactly which disc the robot is working on and what process or step is happening," Rosenberg said, calling the cloud connection a big part of Industrie 4.0.

"Like Creating Revolutions, a lot our customer sites are smaller to mid-size manufacturers who may not have large integrated factories like a lot of the larger original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) do," he said. "This is their first foray into really understanding how powerful it is having that data real-time coming back off your machines. Some of our customers used to do time studies on a regular basis because their clients required it. Since they introduced the cloud-connected robots, they no longer have to do the studies because they know, down to the second, what the robot is producing," Rosenberg said.

The robot adds more jobs

Rosenberg said employees initially bristled at the notion of sharing factory space with a robot. "Once the robot was deployed, they started to realize that some of the aspects that were tedious or required a level of dexterity that they couldn’t maintain continuously was handled to perfection by their new robot colleague, who is now regarded as part of the team," he said. "We’ve even added jobs to keep up with the increased production the robot generates. The reality was it was going to cost us less money to produce abroad, but with a combination of tax breaks, reduction in shipping costs, and the robot, it allowed us to create jobs here in the U.S."

Working unassisted after hours

In addition to functioning side-by-side with human workers during the day, the robot continues to perform for hours after workers go home at night, preparing parts for further assembly the next day.

"Most companies are years away from lights-out manufacturing because it’s so capital intensive. But by renting robots by the hour, and only paying for the hours they actually work, companies of all sizes can afford to automate more of their processes," Bush said, whose cloud-connected solution enables customers to leave the site with peace of mind while the robot keeps at it.

Rosenberg mentioned a recent incident where the robot began an incorrect process using a wrong component. "We looked at it through the high-definition cameras installed above the robot, and realized we didn’t need to send anybody down to the plant; we could just let the robot run itself out, and we cleaned the mess the next day," he says. "In any other situation, if we were to trust a robot like this, we would never run it without a human being around."

Robot becomes a selling point

Having a robot perform several assembly steps has become a huge selling point for Creating Revolutions.

"When our customers come here and see the robot, they realize the quality and precision guaranteed because of the robot. Because we’re not an established company, they want to feel like the product that they’re going to be using is not going to fail on them," he said. "The robot demonstrates to them a strength, which then reinforces the sale for us."

Building the cloud infrastructure

Hirebotics used TCP/IP for connection to the cloud infrastructure that the company has built to monitor its robots in the field. Hirebotics also used a cloud connector for implementing other services into the cell, such as cameras or customers’ equipment.

"Communication protocols are an important part of any machine build and determining which to include-for not only the current system architecture but to afford any upgrade or expansion in the future-is critical," said Matt Bush, co-founder of Hirebotics.

This setup gives Hirebotics more control to alter how they are using the equipment without the need to update the robot operation or program.

"Utilizing standard architecture such as TCP/IP socket communication or XML remote procedure call (RPC) gives us a large library of well-tested and stable frameworks to choose from, as well as the ability to quickly expand the functionality of the robots in the field. We are then able to use this on previously installed robots and quickly provide enhanced functionality or monitoring in the field," Bush said, emphasizing that though the collaborative robot is touted as user-friendly with a very intuitive touchscreen interface, it’s possible to dive much deeper into the system and use advanced scripting functions.

"The interface—the way we program them and the way we’re able to write application programming interface (API) layers on top of the core robot-allows us to move very quickly from design, in through programming, and into production. We’ve written our own API that sits on top of the robot that we’re constantly referencing for the cloud infrastructure that we’ve built," he said. "We’ve even been able to tap into the real-time data stream that’s coming off the robot, that’s how we get real-time diagnostics. We’re able to send diagnostic packets up to the cloud on a continuous basis, every three to five seconds, and we’re getting all of that because of the built-in real-time data feedback from the robot."

The next evolution: The robot using different tools

Most robots are dedicated to one task only, but that’s not the case at Creating Revolutions where the robot is multitasking. "We had all these tools that we were already using. We showed each of the processes to Hirebotics and that is how the ‘utility belt’ came about," said Rosenberg, who wanted the robot to mimic the processes that his employees were doing. "A human grabs a tool, does the process and puts the tool back down. That’s exactly what the robot now does."

Brian Dillman, area sales manager, Universal Robots. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media,


Key concepts 

  • Collaborative robots work with humans to speed soldering.
  • Rejects plummeted and throughput increased.
  • Programming, integration, and setup were intuitive.

Consider this

What processes could you improve by integrating collaborative robots?

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About Universal Robots

Universal Robots is a result of years of intensive research in robotics. The six-axis robot arms weigh as little as 24 lb with reach capabilities of up to 51-in. The product portfolio includes the collaborative UR3, UR5, and UR10 robot arms named after their payloads in kilos. Repeatability of +/- .004-in. allows quick precision handling of even microscopically small parts. After initial risk assessment, the collaborative Universal Robots can operate alongside human operators without safety guarding. If the robots come into contact with an employee, the built-in force control limits the forces at contact, adhering to the current safety requirements on force and torque limitations. Intuitively programmed by non-technical users, the robot arms go from box to operation in less than an hour, and typically pay for themselves within four to eight months. Since the first UR robot entered the market in December 2008, the company has seen substantial growth, with the robotic arms now being sold in more than 50 countries. The company is headquartered in Odense, Denmark where all development and production is carried out. In 2015, Boston-based Teradyne Inc., a leading supplier of automated test equipment, acquired the company. Universal Robots has subsidiaries in the U.S., Spain, Germany, Singapore, Czech Republic, India, and China. U.S. regional offices are located in Ann Arbor, MI, Long Island, NY, Irvine, CA and Dallas, TX.

About Creating Revolutions
The Miami-based startup’s Service Pager is based on 11 unique patents and designed to last 10 years without recharging or plugging in. Used in many different communication settings, the most widespread use is in restaurants, where guests touch their smartphone to the disc, prompting an app to instantly appear on the phone. The app’s AI understands the queries and can translate into the native language of the recipient; if the guest asks for another round of drinks, it communicates with the bartender; if the guest wants a car, it communicates with the valet, etc. The solution has proven to double employee

About Hirebotics
Hirebotics’ mission is to make automation easy, affordable, and within the grasp of manufacturers across all industries and of every size and type. The founders, Rob Goldiez and Matt Bush, launched the company in 2015 in Nashville and now have robotic workers deployed as hourly paid employees in Florida, Ohio, Michigan, New York, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Tennessee. Hirebotics is a UR Certified System Integrator and works exclusively with UR robots.