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Category archives: "Robotics"

Getting cozy with cobots

Posted: 12 March 2018
‘Victoria’ is shaking things up at door and window hardware manufacturer Assa Abloy.

Victoria is a cobot – a UR5 collaborative robot able to work on 32 different product variants on the lock body line at the company’s Albany facility.

She has been a game-changer, so much so that Assa Abloy is about to commission two more cobots on a different assembly line, manufacturing engineering manager Marc Simkin says.

The sleek new employee paid for herself within a year, and has created a whole new role for the person who used to do her job. He is now the robot minder, directing her to where she’s needed and placing a much greater focus on quality.

“Our experience has been absolutely fantastic,” Simkin says.

Cobots are robots that work alongside their human colleagues without the need for safety guarding. They are easier to install than traditional robots and typically have a shorter payback period.

Compared with their American, European and Asian counterparts New Zealand manufacturers have been slow to adopt cobots. The technology is a key part of the digital revolution that is changing the face of manufacturing, and the Kiwi sector risks becoming uncompetitive if it doesn’t get on board, Callaghan Innovation’s business innovation adviser for manufacturing, Nathan Stantiall, says.

Cobots aren’t for everyone, which is why Callaghan Innovation, the Government’s business innovation agency, offers a free one-month trial of its own UR5 plus research support.

Universal Robot
Universal Robot UR5

The borrow-a-bot scheme is how Assa Abloy came to know and love Victoria. It held the “robot wars”, pitting three different technologies against each other – a UR5 made by the Danish-based Universal Robots (UR); a cobot from Swiss industrial equipment maker ABB; and the cobot Callaghan Innovation had at the time, dubbed ‘Baxter’.

Sadly for Baxter, a first generation cobot developed by US-based Rethink Robotics, the UR5 won. But without the trial Assa Abloy would have taken much longer to evaluate its options, Simkin says.

“At that stage we had no idea what we were going to do with the technology,” Simkin says. “The whole point was a process of discovery and understanding of what is out there.”

Christchurch-based Design Energy distributes UR products in New Zealand. The great advantage of cobots is that they’re easy to use and extremely flexible, managing director Mike Shatford says.

“Companies can deploy them themselves, maintain them, programme them,” he says. “Because they’re so simple, that can be put back into the end user’s hands.”

UR5 touchscreen tablet controls
UR5 touchscreen tablet controls

Smaller firms with mixed production runs may not think they are ripe for automation, but the technology can be deployed to perform a variety of different tasks even within a single day, Shatford says.

The lower implementation costs mean the payback period is typically around six to 12 months, and putting cobots into the mix also stimulates consistency in the production process, he says.

“We’ve seen multiple cases where throughput gains far outweigh savings on labour,” he says.

Embracing automation will be increasingly important as New Zealand seeks to lift its low productivity growth levels, Callaghan Innovation’s Nathan Stantiall says.

“It’s not about replacing the workforce. It’s about throughput gains, upskilling your workforce to do more fulfilling and productive roles, and improvements in safety,” he says.

Trialling a robot would be most beneficial to businesses that are new to robotics and have implemented lean manufacturing principles, he says. Combining use of cobots with Callaghan Innovation’s Better by Lean training programme may be a good strategy for some firms.

“We urge manufacturers to come and talk to us about giving cobots a go,” Stantiall says.

If your company is interested in a cobot trial please contact Callaghan Innovation

See also Manufacturing Robots

This article was first published in the March issue of the EMA Business Plus magazine.

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Meet Baxter

Posted: 14 December 2016
Baxter is a smart, collaborative robot. Callaghan Innovation has been putting him to work alongside humans on productions lines around New Zealand for the past couple of years.

Callaghan Innovation has been letting businesses see for themselves if robotics could help improve productivity and efficiency, letting their human staff focus on higher-value work. But don’t take our word for it, let Baxter explain for himself.

Baxter the Robot

Tell us a bit about yourself?

Sure, I am an industrial, collaborative robot. I’m designed to do simple industrial jobs such as loading, sorting and handling of materials. I can do these jobs working right next to people, because I can sense when someone moves close to me and I can measure how much force I am applying to something and stop if it’s too high. I was created by Rethink Robotics in 2012. I am 1.8m tall, 140kg and can be wheeled about anywhere. I have a younger brother called Sawyer.

What do you like best about your job?

I like a challenge! Unlike my cousins who require the environment around them to be very precise, I can adapt to things. For example, I can pick up items that aren’t precisely aligned, then re-orient and place them correctly. I can also see stuff around me, which means I can recognise parts - important when you are trying to sort apples from oranges. I also love working! When my human coworkers need rests, I just carry on, in fact when they go home at the end of the day I carry on then too! Don’t worry though, I’m not going to take over, I need my human coworkers to work on higher value things around the factory. I’m good at adapting to a new job quickly too, just wheel me in, I’m easy to programme and away I go, no safety cages and no complex jigs and fixtures.

Baxter emotions

What do you think are places where you might be better suited to work than a person? Why?

I just love the repetitive stuff! My human coworkers get bored more easily but I can keep up with repetitive jobs like loading material into machines that can be quite dangerous such as presses and guillotines. My skills mean I don’t put my fingers where they shouldn’t go. I can also handle hot, cold, fragile, sharp and sticky stuff humans don’t like touching. I’m good at counting and inspecting stuff too.

For a business thinking about robotic technologies, what is your advice about where they should start?

I would recommend the Better by Lean business workshop run by Callaghan Innovation which helps you review your business processes and management systems to improve productivity, reduce waste and enhance customer experience. In my experience, businesses that automate well do so when their processes are already “lean”.

Start thinking about automation opportunities in your business: Which processes could be good candidates for automation, which of these would be suitable to test? Engage with potentially affected employees. Many businesses have found that they redeploy any affected staff to other higher value activities.

Build a business case to show how automation supports your business needs. Think about the benefits, and what challenges could be overcome. Consider how will you measure whether automation has been valuable and develop a strategy for re-deploying your existing human resources.

Determine the operations model. Ask whether you have right staff and infrastructure to assess for new automation opportunities and support the automation, both hardware and software.

Identify your automation partners, who best fits with your needs and your business and understand what you are paying for.

Finally, have a strong implementation plan. Determine how long the pilot should be if you have one and what are the stages after this?

Who is your hero in the robot world?

‘Data’ from Star Trek

What’s next for you?

In the longer term, one of my creators Jim Lawton from Rethink Robotics says there are a couple of things that will help my friends and I be more useful in the future. The first is increased dexterity, such as being able to thread a needle or unwrap a package. Secondly, teaching machines to learn algorithms that can see the bigger picture, for example, if an algorithm is trained to recognise dogs, we can do that with a high level of accuracy. But if we are shown a picture of a family playing frisbee with their dog on the beach, we will be clueless about anything else besides the dog. As a consequence of these improvements, we will be able to access vast databases, recognise people, machines and parts, be able to derive insights and act on them.

In the short term, I better see which Callaghan Innovation customer I am meeting next!

Get in touch and find out if I might suit your business or consider our Better by Lean programme. My email is Baxter@callaghaninnovation.govt.nz and I'm @robot_baxter on Twitter.

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