Pick, purchase and programme your first industrial robot

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Nigel Smith, Managing Director of TM Robotics, gives advice to manufacturers who may be about to make their first robotic investment.

Robots aren’t always given a favourable representation in popular culture. In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968, the homicidal supercomputer HAL 9000 demonstrated how a robot could conspire against its human colleagues. Thankfully, industrial robots aren’t quite as menacing. Popular culture and TV caricatures aside, robots don’t disappoint. Given that robots boost productivity, profitability and quality, it’s no surprise they are becoming more commonplace in everyday life, and especially in industry. In fact, it is estimated that three million industrial robots will be in use globally by the end of 2020, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). Unfortunately, small-to-medium sized manufacturers are often unwilling to invest in their very first robot – after all, they are hardly inexpensive. Thankfully, taking the automation plunge doesn’t have to be a worrisome process.

Choosing your machine

First things first, what do you want your robot to do? The desired application will determine which kind of robot is required. A SCARA robot, for instance, would be most suited for compact pick-and-place operations, whereas palletising applications may require a six-axis machine that boasts a heavy payload. That said, several factors should be contemplated beyond robot type. They include the operation, payload, number of axes, reach, accuracy, cycle time, inertia. The Ingress Protection (IP) rating should also be taken into account, a metric used to define the sealing effectiveness of electrical enclosures against foreign bodies like dirt and moisture. Careful calculation of these nine parameters should be the first step of any robot investment.

Making your purchase

Similarly, budgets shouldn’t be estimated. Robot investments often go far beyond the initial price tag. As well as the purchasing cost, factories may need to create a segregated work cell or buy additional power units before a robot can be deployed. Not to mention variable expenditures – such as labour, energy, materials and ongoing maintenance – that are required to operate the robot long term. Don’t be afraid to ask for guidance when determining the cost and nine parameter requirements of your robot. Robot suppliers aren’t like the used car salesmen of the automation world – and any that behave in such a way should be actively avoided.

Programming your robot

Parting with your cash isn’t necessarily the most daunting part of a robot investment, however. Instead, a common objection from manufacturers is unfamiliarity with programming languages. While installing a robot usually isn’t as simple as plug-and-play, most don’t require a huge amount of programming knowledge, either. Powerful but simple simulation tools with offline programming function can be beneficial. However, it is also vital to decide who will be responsible for maintaining the robot and ensuring they are trained. By opting for easy-to-programme robot software, the end user can benefit from extensive training to ensure that robot programming and control is simple, even for engineers embarking on their first industrial robot project. Kubrick’s representation of a malicious robot in 2001: A Space Odyssey may not be entirely accurate in today’s manufacturing world. And, fortunately, your first robot purchase doesn’t have to be quite so intimidating.

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