Industrial robot applications

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Integrating robotics into electronics applications is amongst the most rewarding tasks that we face at TM Robotics. Toshiba Machine’s fast, accurate and high repeatability robots are ideal for tasks such as PCB manufacture, mobile phone assembly and hard disc production as well as other pick and place functions in electronics applications. Normally, the reason our electronics industry customers give for automating is a desire to bring down costs and compete with cheaper manufacturing economies. They are looking for the future of manufacturing in the electronics industry.

For instance, Toshiba Machine’s TH350 SCARA (Selectively Compliant Articulated Robot Arm) was the logical choice when an Irish manufacturer of MCBs (Miniature Circuit Breakers) needed to replace an existing pneumatic pick and place machine. After changes to the manufacturing process, the existing equipment was not able to perform the required task in the necessary cycle time.

With the help of a local TM Robotics’ system integrator, the TH350 was installed and now easily meets its targets.

There were two principal reasons why the TH350 was chosen. Firstly, the production line manufactures MCBs at a rate of 24 a minute, so exceptional repeatable accuracy was required for this high-speed assembly task. The TH350 is both fast and accurate – it offers repeatability and positioning to ±0.01mm and a completion time of 2.9m/s.

Size was the second important factor. The TH350 was ideal, as it is both compact and powerful, offering a 3kg maximum payload. With an arm length of 350mm and minimal footprint and head clearance, the robot’s compact design allowed the engineers to locate it inside one of the workstations on an existing automatic assembly machine. Furthermore, the TH350 is extremely flexible and offers movement of ±115º and ±145º on axes one and two respectively. The installation created very little downtime; all it took was a long weekend during which the robot was interfaced, through the robot controller, to the existing line equipment.

Small, fast and easy robots for the electronics industry

This is just one example of the way Toshiba Machine and TM Robotics have responded to fears over the ease of use of industrial robots by making our own machines ever simpler to use, install and program. We have also proactively addressed the overall needs of electronics manufacture by producing smaller, more accurate and faster robots, such as our TH180, TH250T and TH350T SCARAs. We have also taken measures such as the introduction of clean room options, essential for high level electronics work, and ceiling mount models, saving valuable floor space on the production line. We have lived by the motto, smaller, faster and easier.

A literal manifestation of this maxim is the TM Robotics-developed portable SCARA starter pack. The pack can be set up in under fifteen minutes and is sufficiently easy to use that a technician will be able to write and run a programme after only an hour of tuition. It contains a TH180 mini SCARA robot, which features an arm length of 180mm, a payload of 2kg and repeatability of ±0.01mm. The robot is ideal for use in cleanroom work or electronics manufacture and as a display tool acts as a representative of the entire Toshiba Machine range. Also included is a TS1000 controller, which offers four axis simultaneous control, absolute encoders and can be programmed in SCOL, a language similar to BASIC. The unit comes complete with a teach pendant, for easy control access, and either pneumatic or electric grippers and a number of safety cubes for use in sample applications. The entire starter pack and the specially designed work cell can fit inside two carry cases, making it extremely portable. We see the starter pack as the perfect antidote to the belief that industrial robots need to be complicated.

Easy to install automation for the electronics industry

It may well be that the best answer the European electronics industry can give to the cheaper labour costs offered in other parts of the world is this kind of easy to install automation. Not long ago I visited a factory which, as I first approached and spotted its blacked out windows, I thought was unoccupied. Thinking that what I was looking at was another empty plant; dismantled thanks to uncompetitive labour costs, I was surprised to realise that the plant was completely automated, with no human operatives at all. It occurred to me that I was looking at the most profitable future for the UK electronics industry.

Cost effective, reliable and fast industrial robots in the food industry have been the key factor in what TM Robotics sees as the sector’s automation revolution. Just as the automotive sector became heavily automated in the 1970s, so the first decade of this century brought with it a scramble amongst food manufacturers to invest in the most efficient and future proofed industrial robots on the market.

Amongst the best robot technologies for the food industry is the SCARA. SCARA stands for Selective Compliant Assembly Robot Arm or Selective Compliant Articulated Robot Arm – the two acronyms are both common and are entirely interchangeable. What are SCARA robots?

Robotics in the food industry │ SCARA robot

This acronym is the key to understanding the advantages of a SCARA robot in the food industry. The first thing to recognise is the robot’s parallel-axis joint layout, which is compliant in the X-Y direction but rigid in the ‘Z’ direction, hence the term ‘Selective Compliant’. This offers enormous advantages in all sorts of primary and secondary packaging applications as well as a host of other pick and place functions. Secondly, the jointed, two-link arm layout is similar to a human arm, which is why the phrase ‘articulated’ forms part of the acronym. As a result, the robot can reach into confined areas and then fold back out of the way. This function is ideal for loading confectionary goods onto a tray for instance, or indeed loading or unloading any enclosed process station.

To illustrate the potential of robots in these kinds of applications, Michael Taylor, the chairman of CeNFRA, an independent and local Government backed advisory scheme said, “The food and drink processing industry is under real pressure and if UK processors are going to survive in the global marketplace, we will have to restructure our operations. We need to be multi-skilled, leaner and efficient. Robotic and automation solutions can increase capacity and bottom line profits.” Why you should use SCARA robots in the food and drink industry

In the food and drink sector, this increased capacity and profit are normally obtained by using SCARA robots in either primary or secondary packaging. The range of gripper technologies and vision systems available means that the machines could be used to pick up food items of packaged drinks and transfer them into the primary packaging, pick up trays of goods and transfer them into boxes or transfer boxes into secondary packaging for shipment. The crux of the issue here is choosing the correct gripping device – one only has to think of the delicacy of an exquisite praline, or a fragile wafer to realise how gentle the hands of a robot have to be. Furthermore, providing they have the appropriate IP65 classification, there is no reason why SCARAs can’t be used in the manufacturing process itself. Toshiba Machine’s range of IP65 SCARAs and IP65 ‘hoods’ provide exactly this advantage.

When they are used in manufacturing or packaging, SCARAs offer a single low footprint pedestal mount which takes up very little valuable manufacturing real estate. However, if the space really isn’t available then ceiling mount versions are available. The insider’s tip here is to choose a model, such as a Toshiba Machine SCARA, that is available in ceiling mount as standard, because adaptations from other manufacturers can be costly.

Robot software is easy to programme, which means that machines can be re-trained when a line ceases manufacturing one product and moves on to another. The equipment is easy to install, meaning that downtime is minimised during the integration process. And, above all, the cost and potential return on investment (ROI) of the system is easy to estimate, providing you already know what your existing costs are. 

Robotics in the food industry

The advantage of SCARAs over Delta

While SCARAs don’t have the speed of Delta robots, which are often used in food manufacture, they do have one significant advantage over such devices – cost! In financial terms, you can buy two SCARAs for the same price as a single, less robust, Delta. The two robots between them will offer the same, or greater, speed of food processing as the single machine and, on the rare occasions that a robot requires maintenance, two SCARAs offer you the option of half production – which a single Delta does not.

So, while the density of robots in the food industry is still not in the same arena as the automotive sector, it is increasing more quickly. The Government is investing in robotics, via NGOs such as CeNFRA, and most major corporations are investing in robotics. Perhaps it’s time that you joined the revolution?

By far the most common applications for industrial robots in the pharmaceutical sector is manufacturing and packaging, particularly end of line packaging. The key factors in this context are speed, payload and flexibility, all areas in which Toshiba Machine’s range of SCARA, six axis and Cartesian robots excel.

Speed is particularly pertinent in a pharma manufacturing plant where, for instance, a broken ampoule or spilt syrup can mean a breach of the aseptic environment – leading to costly down time and significant losses. Indeed, pharmaceuticals require more speed, precision and faster cycle times than typical robotic operations. In automotive production for instance, cycle times are generally greater than four seconds. In pharmaceutical applications, cycle times are usually less than four seconds.

Another significant factor is payload. While few laboratory applications require significant payloads, in pharmaceutical manufacturing or packaging applications, robots can often be required to lift quite heavy items.

The third of the three key issues to consider is flexibility. I have often encountered applications where SCARA, Cartesian or six axis robots could all perform effectively and meet the same set of requirements. This illustrates the flexibility of the different kinds of robotic systems on the market. However, key things to consider are the ease with which the robot can be programmed and the space it occupies. The most important factor, of course, is programming simplicity. If, for instance, a single manufacturing line in a contract manufacturer is producing syrups for one client for the first half of the year and another client for the second half of the year, the re-programming of the robot should be as simple as possible to facilitate the changeover. Simple programming languages such as SCOL, teach pendant functionality and 3D simulation software are all benefits Toshiba Machine robots offer in this context.

Robot vision for proofreading

The pharmaceutical industry depends on automated process-control and quality-assurance systems to ensure that batch production is carried out repeatably, reliably, and accurately. Like many other manufacturing industries, especially those concerned with the production of high-value products, pharmaceutical producers are constantly looking at ways to increase throughput and maximise yield.

Critical to this level of control is incoming material inspection and proofreading of labels. FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) guidelines specify that each package must carry a label exactly the same as the one originally approved by the manufacturer. This process is now improving thanks to the combination of bar codes and robot vision, but development in the industry is slow and it’s often still done by two human proofreaders comparing incoming product to a master sample. The issue is that many human proofreaders, who are rightly proud of how much better at their job they are than the average Joe, believe they are also superior to a computer. However, the computer will perform 100% reliably, in seconds, the task they may take several minutes to complete. As a result, a vision equipped robot can often be the answer.

Robot vision in clean room applications

All Toshiba Machine robots have clean rooms options available. This is because, when this option is applied, it saves the significant cost of a human going in and out of the clean room. The human cost can be found in the protective suit, the time it takes to put the suit on and take it off and counteracting the potential for contamination each time a person steps over the threshold. When one factors this process into the equation four to eight times a day, the costs start to look significant.

Of course, a vision equipped robot drastically reduces the human intervention required in the process. In addition, if a human rarely needs to access the clean room, the space itself can be smaller. Toshiba Machine’s TH180, TH250T and TH350T SCARA robots reflect this trend towards small footprint robots. With arm lengths only 180mm, 250mm and 350mm respectively, they are small enough to fit in a very snug area and are significantly more efficient and quicker than a human operative.

The future of robots in pharmaceutical manufacturing

This range of vision applications in the pharmaceutical industry means it is one of the sectors with the most potential for growth in the entire field of robotics. Indeed, the scope of uses found for materials handling robots is only now beginning to become transparent. What is clear though is that the fundamentals of speed, payload and flexibility will continue to be important and that Toshiba Machine and TM Robotics will continue striving to offer industry leading machines that meet and surpass these requirements

Integrating industrial robots into your plastics plant can be one of the most cost effective methods of improving profitability.

Furthermore, because of Toshiba Machine’s history in the manufacture of equipment, such as injection moulding machines, for the sector it is perfectly placed to provide automation to compliment such machines.

Like most of manufacturing, the plastics industry is facing demands to lower costs and increase output.

TM Robotics believes that its range of industrial robots, manufactured to the highest standards by Toshiba Machine, can be part of the solution for the European plastics industry.

However, there is no question that the UK plastics industry lags behind Europe in its uptake of industrial robots. Despite this, there are certain niches where this kind of automation is succeeding. For instance, downstream automation is proving to be a growth area. Here the versatility and flexibility of a SCARA robot makes it an ideal complement to an injection-moulding machine.

Other industrial robot applications that have proved successful in plastics plants range from pick and place of component parts to packaging of end products. TM Robotics has even been involved in a number of dispensing, metering and measurement projects using Cartesian robots.

The project involved developing a gluing system that would eliminate ‘lag’ in glue dispensing applications for plastics adhesion. Lag is the term used when a droplet of glue is accidentally deposited in the corner of an object when the dispensing robot changes direction. This application used a Cartesian linear actuator to dispense glue into camera mouldings. The dispensing head was comprised of an air-operated cylinder, which pushes glue forward onto two pistons. The glue then moves through a mixer and is dispensed onto the application.

Another innovation that is proving particularly useful to plastics manufacturers is the ceiling mount option that is available on all Toshiba Machine SCARA robots. This helps manufacturers save space, increase output and reduce costs.

Leading Toshiba Machine’s suite of ceiling mounted industrial robots is the TH450 SCARA, which saves space in the cell by allowing access to the working area from above. The TH450 is amongst the quickest SCARA robots of its size on the market and achieves cycle times of less than 0.3 seconds. Arm lengths of 450mm and a payload of 5kg complement the TH450’s enhanced speed capability while repeatability is an impressive ±0.01mm.

However, the success of our ceiling mount robots, as well as our other machines, has largely come as the result of work with medium sized manufacturers. Clearly, this is partly the effect of larger companies being driven out of the UK and Western Europe in search of cheaper workforces and facilities. However, I would also put this forward as anecdotal evidence that the smaller end of the European plastics industry is becoming much more innovation focused as it seeks to compete with cheaper workforces in the far east.

As this innovation takes hold, the next decade could prove to be crucial for our plastics industry, with increasing focus on sustainability in manufacturing as well as a continued interest in health and safety in plastics. However, the bottom line every year is productivity. The quest to improve this most significant of factors is where industrial automation can really help. I see the plastics industry as a sleeping giant for robot companies. When it awakes it could be as significant to robot manufacturers as the automotive industry is now.

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