Many companies – especially electronics producers – demand flexible robot solutions. But without a realistic calculation of potential, it can end up an expensive affair, warns robot consultant at Gain & Cu, Mikkel Viager.
Must the robot be repurposable for new tasks?
This question is asked by many production companies when they invest in robots and automation solutions.
In a time where you in an increasing degree are measured on your ability to rapidly convert production, flexible robot solutions continue to make gains. With a high degree of flexibility, the robot can handle many different types of orders. However, the mantra of “high flexibility” sometimes gets out of hand in the eyes of Mikkel Viager.
“There has emerged a bit too much hype surrounding flexible robots,” he says, and clarifies:
“It means that businesses end up paying too much for solutions, due to them requesting more flexibility than they actually need.”
A difficult balance to future-proof production
Demands for high flexibility are especially common among production lines with many orders of low unit counts, e.g. among Danish electronics makers. The challenge is to find a balance, where a robot solution is flexible enough to handle future orders – while at the same time not becoming too expensive.
A business which has firsthand experience with this issue is the Danish company, Mikkelsen Electronics A/S. The business produces, among others, cabling and protective plastic casts for electronics at its production in Forum, where 70 employees do their daily work. For them, automation is a necessity, explains CEO Kim Christiansen. Towards 2020, part of the production is to be automated as to better utilize the capacity of the machines.
“We have a capacity problem. Some of the machines only run single shifts right now, but with automation, we can run two shifts a day and thereby produce more goods with the same number of people as now,” he says.
Some flexibility is good, but…
The difficulty for Mikkelsen Electronics and similar businesses is, according to Mikkel Viager, exactly to estimate how flexible a robot solution must be.
One of the obvious focus areas of Mikkelsen Electronics is in the foundry. Workers spend a lot of time placing small circuit boards in the moulding machine, which then coats components in a protective layer of plastic – called Technomelt – to protect from dust, vibrations, moisture, and other effects. This work can with advantage be performed by a robot, that on its own places items in the moulding machine.
Currently, there are enough orders to last several years into the future, but what’s next after that? If the robot must be able to mount new types of products with other shapes into the moulding machine, the company needs to take this into account right now. This is something the business already learned from a prior robot purchase.
“We used to have a soldering robot. But now, it just stands idle and is not in use, as it was designed too specifically for a single project. Because of this, it is important to us to have a certain degree of flexibility in our demands for future robot solutions,” says Kim Christiansen.
In reverse, there is also a risk of falling in the opposite trap and pursuing the most expensive solutions, which can do as many tasks as possible. And there are plenty of these temptations according to Kim Christiansen.
“Many robot salesmen call and ask if we just should get a robot that can do all kinds of things, ‘and then you can always figure out if you can use it for anything later’ they say. But this is not how we want to run our business,” he says.
Flexible robots – but on which parameters?
The flexibility of a robot solution is typically measured in three categories:
- Physical parameters
Denotes the physical characteristics of the solution – e.g. the robots reach, size, types of grips, etc.
Covers programming of the robot and things such as how easy it is to reprogram to handle new product types.
- Digital interface
Describes the robot’s standards for coupling to other machines and systems. Flexibility here is especially important if you expect to obtain new systems in the future, which the robot solution must be able to couple with without major reprogramming.
The price determines demands for the robot solutions flexibility
The best procedure is, according to Mikkel Viager, to map both current and future needs before purchasing the robot. This includes clarifying variants of various product types across vendors in the supply chain of the business.
“It is important to consider enough variants to ensure the solution can still be used if some orders vanish,” says Mikkel Viager.
Next, you can investigate a few scenarios using different solutions, which have a greater or lesser degree of flexibility. The calculation of potential must among others clarify, how much the solutions can increase productivity, raise quality, improve the working environment, etc. The calculation hereby indicates, how much a solution may cost to keep investments profitable – this is also known as Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). In this manner, you build grounds for comparison between the offers you receive from robot vendors.
“It is important to have solid grounds for decision-making and to get realistic numbers for big a robot investment may be. And ideally, this should be independently sourced so you know you can count on it,” says Kim Christiansen.