By June 12, 2017 Read More →

Robots versus conventional automation solutions

170612_StelramWhen there’s a need to add bespoke functionality to a production line, the end user and the equipment supplier are often faced with having to choose between a conventional solution and one that uses industrial robots. Bob Hinchcliffe, technical director at automation expert Stelram Engineering examines the pros and cons of both approaches.

Conventional approaches to delivering bespoke functionality are typically based on custom hardware that’s designed specifically for the job in hand. This makes it easy to take into account special requirements, such as the need to fit the equipment into a small or unusually shaped space.

Also, largely because of their familiarity with the technology used, many end users favour conventional solutions, expecting them to be easier to maintain and, should a breakdown occur, less costly to repair. It also has to be said that in some applications at least, the initial cost of conventional solution is less than that of an equivalent robotic solution.

Robotic solutions, which are based largely on standard hardware, the functionality of which is determined purely by programming, do however have their own special advantages. Because their functionality is mostly software defined, changes are made easily.

Adapting a conventional solution to handle say, a new size of carton that wasn’t foreseen at the design stage may well involve inconvenient and time-consuming modifications to conveyors, diverters and other pieces of plant hardware. With a robot solution, the modifications needed will, in most cases, be limited to a software revision.

Robotic solutions also have the capacity to dramatically improve product quality. Operations are performed with high precision, repeatability and reliability. This level of consistency can be difficult and costly to achieve with traditional methods or human operators. Robots are constantly being improved, but currently some of the most precise robots have extraordinary repeatability capabilities, which could never be matched even the best manual operatives. These capabilities are especially important in demanding industries such as automotive and aerospace, where tolerances are extremely tight and everything has to be manufactured just in time and just right.

In fiercely competitive high-volume sectors such as food manufacturing and packaging, every individual process within the assembly or production line needs to perform reliably and to the highest standards, with technologies working together for optimal output and outstanding end results.

A key benefit for using automated systems in these applications is increased productivity. By installing robots, throughput speeds of even the most complex operations – many of which might previously been impossible to perform in any way other than manually – often increase dramatically, which directly impacts costs and production quotas.

In these applications, robotic solutions offer an excellent ROI and, as an added bonus, businesses can in many cases apply for EU funding or government programmes that support automation – which further lowers the initial investment costs.

But business owners must be aware that incorporating industrial robots does not automatically guarantee great results. Devising a detailed project plan from the beginning to the end is absolutely crucial for making the most of the investment in new equipment.

So if for instance the plant is suffering from recurring bottlenecks at some point on the line, incorporating automation may not boost productivity unless this bottleneck is correctly identified and addressed. Only by considering the plant holistically and devising a sound operational strategy can companies reap the full benefits of robots or, indeed, conventional automation systems. Working with a supplier with proven expertise and relevant experience is therefore crucial to the success of all major projects.

Another factor to consider when evaluating automation options is safety. Interestingly, and perhaps counter-intuitively, studies show that robots considerably increase workplace safety. Employees are moved to supervisory roles where they no longer have to perform dangerous applications in hazardous settings. Improved worker safety leads directly to financial savings with fewer healthcare, insurance and regulatory concerns for employers.

However, robot-based automation solutions are not suitable for every application, and some potential users may be better off with a more conventional approach. First of all, the initial investment required for integrating robotics into a production line can be significant, especially when business owners limit their purchases to new robotic equipment only. If second-hand or refurbished equipment is considered, the cost may become more manageable.

An important issue to consider is the lifetime cost of the system. The cost of the spare parts needed to maintain conventional automation systems tends to be low, whereas if a major component in a robot fails, a replacement may be costly. However, if after some time the automation system is no longer needed, the components of the conventional solution will have little more than scrap value. The robots in a robotic solution, on the other hand, can usually be redeployed, potentially doing something totally different from their former function.

A further consideration relating to the use of robots in production processes is that maintenance and operating staff are likely to require training for programming and interacting with the new robotic equipment. This takes time and costs money. Some companies may even find that they have to recruit new engineers and operators who are well versed in the use of robotic solutions and can, therefore, get the best from them.

In a nutshell, there are many factors to be considered when choosing between a conventional and a robotic automation solution, and the choice is often not clear-cut. It is essential, therefore, for businesses seeking automation solutions to work with an equipment supplier that has no commercial axe to grind – that is, one with equal experience of both robot and conventional solutions. Stelram Engineering is just such a supplier and, because of this, it always examines every project individually and provides genuinely impartial advice on the solution that’s best in every way for the end user.

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