The first few steps in introducing robots – or any other automation technology – are crucial to ensuring the overall success of plant automation. A botched early step can cause management to back away from the financial investment needed to automate plant processes. Companies that don’t have the proper engineering staff inhouse, can bring in a systems integrator to make sure the early steps toward automating the plant are sound and form a foundation for the next steps in the automation.

Choosing the right robot can make all the difference during the first steps in automating the plant. Photo couresy of Epson Robotics.

One obvious aspect of that first step is choosing an automation application that will deliver a clear return on investment (ROI). Yet not all ROI-based automation moves are the same. Some are fairly easy, while others are very difficult. “Frist off, start simple,” Rick Brookshire, senior manager at Epson Robotics, told Design News. “Typically, we’ll go into a factory that has no robots, no automation, and there are lots of opportunities. Some look for the best ROI, but if it’s going to be really hard, that could be a poor choice. It’s best to choose something simple. If you do it well at the beginning, management will say ‘Let’s go.’ If it’s difficult, management will lose confidence.”

Do You Need a Systems Integrator?

One of the big questions in an automation project is whether it requires outside expertise. “You have to ask the question, ‘Can we do it by ourselves or do we need a systems integrator?’ How do you determine if you’ll need one? Do you have a mechanical engineer, an electrical or control engineer, and a software engineer to put it together? If not, you’ll need help,” said Brookshire, who will present the session, The Starting Point for Robot Automation: A Beginner’s Guide, on Wed., Feb. 7, 2018, at the Pacific Design and Automation Show in Anaheim, Calif. “If you don’t have those three engineers, you’re probably best off with a systems integrator, because you want to have success.”

Choosing the right systems integrator is also important to ensure success. “You can use your robot vendor to help identify the right integrator,” said Brookshire. “If a customer has an application in medical assembly, we’ll typically refer them to a systems integrator that has medical experience, not one from the automotive world. It’s best to use someone who has done 50 medical systems, so they’re learning just your application and not the particulars of the medical industry.”

Matching the Robot with the Application

A miss-match between the process that needs to be automated and the technology to complete that automation can bring the automation process to a halt. “You want to work with a robot vendor that can help you choose the right robot for the job,” said Brookshire. “If you’re moving parts from a flat surface to another flat surface and speed is the issue, you can find a robot for that. If you have to move the part from a shelf and shift it to a right angle to put it down, you may need a six-axis robot. This is a conversation where a good vendor will help you find the right robot for the job.”

Automation projects run into trouble when plant managers are unclear in describing the process that needs to be automated. The process has to be completely understood, from each individual movement to the nature of the parts that are getting moved. “It’s important to be able to present the process so the vendor understands exactly what you want to do,” said Brookshire. “Customers say they want to automate this process. They say they want it to be high precision, but they can’t say how many parts need to be moved and in what time. The answers can be vague. Then you find out later that they’re working with plastic parts. That tells you they don’t understand the process.”

Automation applications are intrinsically designed to solve problems, and those problems have to be articulated. Areas of specific difficulty have to be explained in order to find the right solution. “You need to talk about the problem areas. When you explain the problem areas, you’re telling the vendor what needs extra attention,” said Brookshire. “If customers can explain the process with precision, and they know the process thoroughly, they will have an easy time finding am automation solution.”

>> This article by Rob Spiegel was published in Design News, January 29, 2018

The First Steps Toward Robot Automation