Companies are using cobots (collaborative robots) to accomplish three things: expand production, redirect human workers to higher-value tasks, and ensure everyone's safety. In this section, we'll look at several examples of how they're making it happen.
Trelleborg: Expanding production
At Trelleborg Sealing Solutions, a Danish manufacturing company, collaborative robots are being used as smaller, safer alternatives to traditional industrial robots. Each cobot has effectively become an accessory to each CNC machine. As Jasper Riis, the company's head of production, says, “Whenever we buy a new machine, we also order a robot for it.” This is a completely valid approach, and it is clearly very effective for Trelleborg's purposes.
Machine operators in the company are able to program the robots at a basic level, but that seems to be all the robotics training they have at this stage. The operators' jobs have remained pretty similar to the machine tending they did previously. The main difference is one of scale. Before, each worker would tend three machines simultaneously; now, they tend eight.
Lowercase NYC: The 5-day Integration Project
To produce its stylish eyewear, Lowercase NYC imports raw material in sheets. The sheets are cut down into small tablets and then turned into glasses frames in a CNC machine. The machine is tended by a UR5 cobot from Universal Robots and a Robotiq Gripper. The robot picks up the raw material, loads it into the first position, closes the door, presses the start button, and then does it all again for the second position. After machining, the robot removes the finished pair of glasses and places it in a bucket. The eyewear then goes through many steps of fine-tuning before being ready to ship.
Each production batch in the CNC machine averages 500 units, with around 30 to 40 units of each style. But even with such a small volume, Lowercase NYC co-founder Brian Vallario says the automated process is by far the best solution. ”I only have a few manual tweaks to do on the vices every time. The rest is all automated,” he explains. “This automation is important for us. Eyewear production is a very labor-intensive process, and we are such a small team that any improvement we can make in our efficiency is huge. Having a product that allows me to sit at the computer and work on design or go work on the more labor-intensive stuff that can’t be done by machines is a big plus for us.”
Tegra Medical: Redirecting human workers
Some people might read the stories above and think, “Sounds like the robot took that machinist’s place and now that guy is out of a job!” But that’s not true. The point of collaborative robots is to do more manual tasks and free up human workers for more valuable tasks.
Instead of providing physical labor, workers can spend more time on quality control, part verification, process optimization, and making sure production is running smoothly. Tasks like equipment maintenance can be done more often, and all without having to worry about whether the machine is being fed. Cobots enable employees to:
- Focus on process optimization.
- Focus on product quality and verification.
- Be redirected to more important or pressing tasks.
- Work in a more stimulating environment.
Instead of standing in front of the machine waiting for the next part, workers can keep learning new things. Ultimately, employees get more stimulating jobs and managers get better production. It's a win-win.
Tegra Medical started small when it introduced collaborative robots, beginning with a single UR5 robot before scaling up to three UR5s on different machines. A culture of training and innovation is a key part of Tegra's approach. As Hal Blenkhorn, director of manufacturing, says: “No one is going to lose their job to a robot. We're trying to [add more value to] employees, to train them in new skills, whether it's a different operation or making them the robot supervisor in that area.”
The culture of in-house expertise let Tegra get creative with its use of robots. Taking what they learned from their first three integrations, the team members embarked on an ambitious application for their next robot, a UR10. As Blenkhorn explains, “The challenges in this last cell were running three different products on three different operations. It's unusual for us—and it's unusual in the industry—to have a mixed-model cell like that’s feeding three [different] products simultaneously.”
By taking over basic programming functions, the manufacturing team has given Blenkhorn more time to develop new applications. The operators are even able to get involved in developing these new applications.
This is clear when Senior Manufacturing Engineer Paul Quitzau talks about Tegra’s next application: “We are very excited. We’ve purchased our fourth robot and it's going to go into another area of our company where we perform laser marking.” As for how easy it was to install, Quitzau says, “I was able to piece together the entire application without much issue, and I'm not a programmer, I'm a mechanical person.”