With robotic automation called on to help companies boost productivity and navigate a tight labour market, modular solutions address many of the practical challenges faced by manufacturers looking to optimise their operations. Julian Ware, UK & Ireland Sales Manager for ABB Robotics, explains.
A growing shortage of workers and an increase in the number of companies looking to near or re-shore their operations are two major drivers that are leading to a rising interest in modular robotic solutions as businesses look for ways to fill gaps in their workforce and speed up the introduction of new production and distribution lines. In a survey of UK companies across multiple industry sectors carried out earlier this year, 27% reported a shortage of workers as their biggest daily challenge, while 25% of companies that had invested in robots had done so as part of a drive to re-shore their production or logistics operations.
Available for a wide variety of industrial applications, pre-configured, packaged robotic solutions enable easier integration, speed up installation times and minimise the effort and potential for error associated with sourcing equipment from multiple suppliers. With all the components of the production cell being serviceable by one supplier, users can access the right support more easily in the event of a problem. A fully integrated cell means that the layout can also be optimised to save space, and all the components should be able to work together at full capacity to enhance productivity.
For manufacturing companies, these benefits are typically delivered by application-specific packages for unit operations such as machining, welding, machine tending or quality inspection, for example. In logistics and distribution, automated storage and retrieval solutions offer fast and efficient sequencing, buffering, storage, and order consolidation.
Scalability is a key advantage of modular systems. Modules can be changed or added as needed, while a standardised design makes it easier to re-configure existing cells to make different products to meet changing market demands.
All this enables modular robotic solutions to turn some of industry’s key challenges into opportunities.
Companies across multiple industrial sectors are being impacted by labour shortages, especially in skilled roles. Take welding, for example. The American Welding Society predicts there will be a shortage of 400,000 welders by 2024.
A specialised production cell such as ABB’s OmniVance FlexArc Compact incorporates robots, controllers, software, and peripherals into a single welding cell. Up to four robots can be added without changing the structure of the cell, providing improved flexibility to tackle a wide variety of welding tasks on complex assemblies.
Eliminating quality-related issues is another key challenge because manual inspection is time consuming and error-prone. An automated solution can slash the time and effort involved at the same time as it improves accuracy.
For instance, ABB’s OmniVance 3D Quality Inspection cell uses a 3D optical sensor to inspect components ten times faster than conventional techniques and is accurate to below 100μm, enabling fast and precise identification of any product defects.
Maximising production line flexibility is high on every company’s wish list, so they can respond quickly to changing customer demands. In contrast to fixed-purpose machines that are designed to perform specific roles, robotic solutions can adapt quickly to new requirements.
For example, with its pre-tested combination of robot, controller, and turntable, plus pressure and level sensors and other equipment, ABB’s OmniVance Machining Cell is the first standardised machining solution able to perform up to eight different applications in a single cell. Simply by changing the end effector, the same cell can be adapted for multiple duties, including sanding, deburring, polishing and dry ice cleaning.
For logistics companies, customer expectations for fast delivery, the rise of e-commerce and the emergence of omnichannel distribution models create the biggest challenges. Compact, automated storage and retrieval systems make the best use of available warehousing space and are scalable to meet changing customer needs.
For instance, the OmniVance FlexBuffer combines an ABB robot, a suite of grippers, configurable storage management software, storage racking, an infeed conveyor, and an outfeed conveyor in a single cell. One version is designed to handle standard boxes such as totes, while another features an adjustable gripper for handling parcels, trays, and crates. Both versions handle a payload of up to 50kg and conduct sequencing operations at up to 500 cycles per hour.
With many businesses lacking the in-house expertise to specify, operate and manage robots, modular solutions offer a fast, flexible and cost-effective way of introducing robotic automation to a production or distribution process.