Collaborative Robot at Staub
Last year we undertook the challenge to apply a cobot to our manufacturing processes. A cobot is what the manufacturing industry is calling a collaborative robot – a robot that can work with and in the vicinity of people. One of the earliest and most well-know cobots was Baxter from Rethink Robotics, and there are a growing number of manufacturers in this arena. We chose the UR10 from Universal Robots, which seemed to fit our needs the best. Another way to look at our UR10 is that it lends flexibility to our automation.
We purchased our cobot to help us solve a problem that came along with a particular job. We had a turned part that needed special attention. When turned parts are light, small, and robust, they are very easy to automate on our turning centers. We simply set up a ramp, a bucket, or a bin to catch parts as they are machined. This part was heavy, large, and fragile. We needed to come up with a way to unload this part – and we did not want to do it with labor. We did our homework, collaborated with Buffalo Manufacturing Works, and implemented a UR10 to unload and pack these parts – without damaging them.
Together, our machining center and collaborative robot run these parts unattended night in and night out. The robot and the machine communicate with each other, and a problem with one shuts down the other. We’ve implemented a few other features that have made this process very solid. When the system senses a part, it blows the coolant off. The robot uses suction to handle the part, then tips it to drain excess coolant. It then packs the part in its shipping container, and returns to the home position waiting for the next one.
Once we had implemented the cobot for one part, it opened the doors to applying it to others. We have been looking at parts with the same criteria as our first: parts that our traditional unloading methods would damage. This machine can be configured in a number of ways, so that it can handle parts with a wide variety of geometries. Examples of end of arm tooling that we’ve seen are grippers, suction cups, and magnets. So far we’ve only paired the cobot with one Mori Seiki NL2500 turning center, but we know that the next step is to move it to unload parts from other machines.
Safety Guarding not Required
The UR10, like all collaborative robots, senses force and stops when it encounters resistance. If the robot contacts a person, it will stop without doing serious damage. We now have confidence to deploy a robot without guarding. This gives the cobot a very small footprint, and allows for the flexibility that I mentioned above. We still must be aware and respectful of the cobots space, but fencing and light curtains are no longer necessary.
Ease of Use
Our initial thought was that the greatest benefit would be that we would not need guarding to protect our employees from the robot’s movement. While this has been a true benefit, the greatest advantage has been its ease of use. All of the robot’s parameters are accessible and easy to modify. Our machinists and engineers have been tweaking the cobot’s movements, creating new packing patterns, and making changes to the timing since day one. By coding in changes, and by physically “teaching” the robot where to go, a brand new program can be created in a matter of hours.
Our next order of business is to add mobility to our collaborative robot. After that? Who knows. Maybe it will be that more UR10s get added to our stable, or maybe we’ll try out another cobot manufacturer. One thing is for sure – we won’t be getting away from automation. In fact, the entire industry is moving forward together as we all embrace automated manufacturing. Collaborative robots and flexible automation will only grow in popularity and in market share, and we can’t wait to be part of it.