Robots for machining
The importance of technology champions for smaller manufacturers
The Coronavirus pandemic has posed challenges for all businesses but has proved particularly difficult for the manufacturing community. Philippa Glover, Managing Director of CNC Robotics, believes that technology such as robotics and automation will need to form a key part of a business’s strategic plan moving forward and technology champions for smaller manufacturers will play an increasingly important role.
Philippa recently spoke to Jeremy Hadall who is a leading supporter of the wider application of robotics, from the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry about the benefitsof machining with robots.
Jeremy has spent most of his career promoting the increased use of automation and robotics in UK manufacturing, including the use of robots for machining.
Having joined the MTC at its inception in 2010, Jeremy was responsible for the creation of the Intelligent Automation research theme at the Centre. As the MTC has grown, he has served as Chief Technologist (Robotics & Automation), which involved shaping the UK’s national strategy for industrial robotics.
Robotic machining cells are becomingly an increasingly popular option for manufacturers regardless of their size and sector. Jeremy’s passion for robots is balanced with a healthy dose of pragmatism – the benefits of using robots over conventional machine tools are dependent on selecting appropriate applications. “For me, robots offer a lot of flexibility over a dedicated machine, so, if your manufacturing mix contains a lot of variety, then a robot could be a good solution compared to a more dedicated machine,” explained Jeremy.
“Another opportunity might be when you’re looking to machine a relatively large volumetric area at a low cost. Robots can have considerable work envelopes and with six degrees of freedom can reach any orientation within that envelope. When compared to a machining centre of similar volume, a robot is less expensive and takes up a smaller footprint. Because of the way robots are constructed, they are likely to be cheaper to install and operate than a traditional CNC machine.”
As well as offering the ability to rapidly change what is being machined or the ways in which it is being machined, robots also offer the flexibility to do more than just machining. One of the businesses within MTC’s network is using a robot for different applications on a shift-by-shift basis giving a huge degree of flexibility and production-scheduling freedom. This allows the company to utilise the robot to machine on one shift and assemble on the next, keeping it productive almost constantly. In the past, it would have had two machines sitting idle for half the time.
These benefits don’t mean that a robot will always be the best solution. “It largely depends on what you’re trying to achieve with the robot or CNC machine,” Jeremy explained. “For a lot of applications, a robot could outperform a CNC machine due to its flexibility and work envelope but, if you’re looking at relatively simple processes in high volumes, then a robot might not be the best approach for the machining (but it could well be for part load/unloading). Likewise, if you’re looking for really high precision, very high speeds or are machining a very tough material, robots are probably not the best match and a CNC machine might be a better option.”
Another barrier highlighted by Jeremy is that, unfortunately, a lot more people are trained on how to use a CNC machine than have experience of using a robot, so finding skilled programmers and operators can be difficult. Even so, personnel skilled in working with five-axis machine tools should be relatively easy to train in robot applications.
A more general problem is that a lot of people have the perception that robots are only for mass production, such as in the car industry, while the reality is that they are suitable for most manufacturers regardless of the size of the company. “When I’m talking to companies, I often refer back to the 3 D’s; the dull, the dangerous and the dirty jobs,” said Jeremy. “This is prime territory for any robot that allows manufacturers to take humans out of menial, non-value added tasks and deploy them in knowledge-based tasks or simply to get them out of harm’s way and minimise the risk of injury. These factors are likely to become more important as we head out of lockdown as we’ll need to find ways to keep production going but with social distancing, ‘zero human touch’ manufacturing and, when combined with travel restrictions, a smaller workforce to call on. In addition, we can use robots beyond that now in more creative ways that allow manufacturers to be flexible in their production schedules and build resilience into their manufacturing systems. This approach will help them cope with an uncertain future and prepare them for any further disturbances.”
Jeremy would give the same advice to anyone looking to use a robot for a machining application as he would for any other automation technology; understand clearly what you are trying to automate before you start. “For us at MTC, this absolutely key to a successful implementation,” he claimed. “It means understanding where you are today, what the process is that you’re using and how you are actually doing it. Then, understand where you want to be in the future because that will highlight the gap between the actual and desired state. Once you understand both situations, get some expert advice on how you can achieve the improvements you’re targeting.”
Philippa knows that it is often really difficult to know where to start, “As a SME ourselves we understand the challenges the SME community is faced with and have a lot of experience supporting small businesses to drive and accelerate productivity using robotics.”