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.

08/21/2017


Instructing the Universal Robots’ UR3 collaborative robot to change tasks just requires a QR code scan. Courtesy: Universal RobotsUse 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.

The UR3 robot is programmed through an intuitive touchscreen interface. Courtesy: Universal RobotsSpreading 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.


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