The generally accepted UK definition of an industrial robot is: A re-programmable device designed to both manipulate and transport parts, tools or specialised manufacturing implements through variable programmed motions for the performance of specific manufacturing tasks.
In recent times, automation has become a key issue in ensuring competitiveness from UK manufacturing industries in response to threats posed by low labour costs in other part of the world. The increased used of robotics solutions will be instrumental in maximising this competitiveness.
Typically, most companies will justify an investment in automation based on the planned labour saving, but this is often not the most significant benefit as often, large savings can be provided by improvements not envisaged at the start of the project. Installing robots does, however, provide increased productivity from increased yield and reduced waste or rework, improved customer satisfaction by removal of mundane or dangerous operations, and improved energy use by increased utilisation of other machinery or factory space.
For certain tasks, robots can be superior to humans in terms of quality of the work that is produced, especially when one of the following is required: high positioning precision, high repeatability, no deviation due to fatigue and highly accurate inspection and measurement using sensors. These process improvements not only improve the visual appearance of the product but also the perceived quality of the product.
Robots can improve working environments in areas such as heavy lifting, repetitive work, in contaminated areas such as solvents, noise, heat or dust and for jobs requiring continuously high levels of concentration. Where possible, robots should be installed in continuous 24 hours a day operations to get the best productivity and cost effectiveness. It should also be remembered that robots can be flexible to change.
The key to performing the more complex tasks with a robot is linking it intelligently to other machines for sequence control and sensors so that it can react sensibly to variations in either the components or the environment. To achieve this, robot controllers have a range of different communications ports.
Vision systems also have a role to play in the implementation of robotics systems. There are two distinct ways in which vision and robotics combine in an automation environment. In the first, image processing provides mechanical robots with a new mode of perception by giving them added ‘vision’ which is used to locate parts or guide the robot (pick and place) and in the second, the robot is used to present parts for vision inspection. Both can have huge advantages over manual systems by reliably automating transfers from one process to another or to feed parts into a system. Robot vision can simplify the automation by reducing or eliminating the need for lots of bespoke mechanical handling as well as being able to cope with many different parts within a single system.