Cobots Emerge

Fear not…for they come in peace

Since the debut of its Emerging Technology Center in 2004, IMTS has built a reputation as a show that aims to bring people and automation closer together. The 2018 edition of the International Manufacturing Technology Show (September 10-15 in Chicago) will attempt to do this in a more literal sense, with exhibits that highlight the benefits of collaborative robots, or “cobots.”

The effort is as much designed to reshape worker perception as it is exhibiting new products. “Contrary to consumer media reports that claim robots will take over the world, robots are actually taking over dull, repetitive, and dangerous tasks, which allow workers to focus on other, typically more fulfilling jobs,” an article on IMTS Insider read June 27. Insider, a constantly updating blog on the trade show’s website, is another example of how this show’s two nuclei—manufacturing and technology—have really become its point of emphasis over the past quarter-century. IMTS originally began in 1907 and stood for “International Machine Tool Show”. 1990 brought the name change and subsequent widening of scope. Today’s version of the show is a hotbed for emerging technology, and cobots are expected to be the latest wave. Cobots have been seen at trade shows before, including past IMTS shows and Hannover-Messe:

“Automation suppliers have made tremendous leaps with software, control and sensor technology that enable quantifying what the robot ‘feels.’ If it feels anything out of the ordinary, it will stop before exerting too much force,” says Mike Cicco, President & CEO, FANUC America Corporation. “Where robots previously operated in restricted areas, we can now bring people and automation together to improve assembly operations.”

Examples of cobots include:

  • a robot bin that picks a heavy ball screw and holds it while an operator inserts bearings.
  • an electronics assembly where a human performs the complicated chore of routing cables through a chassis and a robot performs repetitive tasks, such as driving screws.

“Automation mobility is moving forward. Equipment used to be bolted to the floor, but now there is a whole slew of what people are calling mobile robots, which pairs an automated guided vehicle with an articulated arm robot,” says Cicco.

Automation advances on display at IMTS 2018 include articulated robot arms with 3D area sensors (easy-to-use vision tools) that enable bin picking setup in a matter of minutes.

Currently, mobile robots can be self-propelled, manually wheeled or skid-mounted. In the past, relocating a robot would have required reteaching all of its movement points using a pendant control, a time-consuming task. The new generation of mobile robots eliminates this issue. Using fiducial markers – reference dots placed on the CNC — the mobile robot uses a vision system to capture images of the dots. As long as operators orient the robot relatively close to its original position, the robot can recalibrate all of its “teach points,” which saves hours of programming time.

Cicco envisions the future of cobots as a work cell where the robot could tend the CNC and complete tasks such as unloading and loading on long part runs. In this situation the cobot could function without needed guarding and be more integrated into the operators’ day-to-day routines.

Looking forward, “People need to embrace change. Industry cannot do things the way it did 10 years ago and expect to remain profitable or competitive,” says Cicco. “We want to change the mindset, so people view automation as a new career opportunity or see how it enhances their current job. That’s true whether someone is a high school student, assembly worker, technician, shop owner or a Ph.D. candidate.”

There are more companies that have made headway in cobot technology development. Two popular alternatives are KUKA (Augsburg, Germany) and Universal Robots (Odense, Denmark). Universal Robots is a manufacturer of exclusively collaborative robots, where as FANUC and KUKA primarily produce industrial robots. Cobots will be one of the of the primary automation trends at IMTS.

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