Lately the future of manufacturing seems to be leaning towards the Factory of the Future (FotF), Smart Factory or Industry 4.0. This FotF has very different and interesting perspectives; one of them is a very popular buzzword, the ‘Internet of Things’. We are probably more familiar with this concept from a domestic consumer point of view. A typical example is when your fridge has been programmed to send a message to your smartphone to tell you to buy milk on your way home from work because you are running out, or even better, ordering it online for you.
However, one of the most essential principles of the FotF is the connection between machines, tools, systems and even parts under manufacturing in maximizing efficiencies and ultimately matching production to meet the customer demand. The FotF requires more autonomous machines and a network to connect all the elements, including the human component.
How Collaborative robots have been essential
The introduction of cobots into the factory of the future has allowed an automated bi-directional flow of information, not just between machines but also between humans and an integrated production system.
Advanced robotics has been instrumental in providing autonomous machines. Collaborative robotics falls into this category and are capable of working next to humans and even collaborating with them. This is possible because the robots are aware of their surroundings and have been designed with human safety features and monitors as their main directive, taking on board Asimov’s first law of robotics.
The commercial pioneer of this collaborative robot concept is a company called Universal Robots. For over a decade, Universal Robots with their modern commercial robots have set the standard for high volume and low mix manufacturing environment. Any industry that is considering automation to increase their production volume output; seeking to gain an edge in flexibility, as consumers demand more customization and faster delivery then the collaborative robots is their solution since it is a cage-free and easier to program automation tool.
The connection with the FotF is particularly promising too, as it has allowed a bi-directional automated flow of information, not just between machines but also between humans and an integrated production system. Now it is very much possible to access a drilling and fastening cobot, this tool allows a human to handle a heavy drilling gun easily and intuitively, as well as giving people machine-like accuracy.
The cobot can also be programmed with the exact location of the holes so that the drill is only allowed in the right position, while also giving the person control over when and how it is done. We can help the operator visualize the location of the hole with augmented reality or even smart glasses. And the beauty of this combined cobot-human system is that it completely replaces the many drilling templates, with a flexible solution where a few programmable cobots operated by people would emulate the templates with virtual surfaces for each set of new holes are defined by reprogrammable code.
However Safety assessments are required for collaborative robot applications as they are for any other industrial machine since cobot wielding a sharp tool or part will be unsafe around workers no matter how slowly it runs.
Apart from reducing costs by completely ditching the need for manufacturing drilling templates, the most essential connection with the Factory of the Future is how the cobot can easily keep track of how many holes have been drilled and where, comparing it to the digital model of the structural component and also checking whether all the steps in the respective instructions have been followed (or at least those where the cobot is used by the human).
This approach has allowed for the smooth integration of the human component into the network of the FotF, not just from a physical point of view but also as a source of information without the need to enter data manually.