Cobots and the future of maintenance

Unplanned downtime is one of the biggest problems in manufacturing. Recent research by the Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) estimates that downtime can cost manufacturers anywhere between $30,000 and $50,000 an hour. The question is, how much can manufacturers reduce this figure with new technology? Here, Jonathan Wilkins, marketing director at obsolete industrial parts supplier EU Automation explains how collaborative robots can improve maintenance to cut this figure.

 

Machine breakdown can incur serious costs for manufacturers. It can prevent production, delay orders and raise labour costs.

 

To reduce the risk of downtime, manufacturers are introducing more intelligent technology to the factory floor. Automated equipment, for example can increase productivity, accuracy and flexibility. However, manufacturers need to consider how they maintain new technology, for the benefits to be long term.

 

Enter the cobot

Collaborative robots (cobots) can work alongside humans to complete tasks. Traditionally, industrial robots were large, caged machines that humans could not interact with as they were heavy, unaware of their surroundings and posed a safety risk.

 

Unlike their heavier counterparts, cobots are easy to program and can work alongside people. They also come equipped with safety features that mean they stop or slow down when a human is nearby, which reduces the risk of a collision or safety threat.

 

Businesses ranging from small to medium enterprises (SMEs) to large industrial companies are purchasing cobots to improve their workflows.

 

Cobots and maintenance

Most cobots are not designed with maintenance capabilities in mind. However, in-built functions mean that they can help technicians to reduce the risk of unplanned downtime.

 

Collaborative robots are built to complete complex tasks normally performed by humans to increase accuracy and reduce fatigue. This means that technicians can use cobots to complete intricate maintenance tasks in a hazardous environment, for example, when a machine excessively overheats.

 

Retrofitting

Small and medium manufacturing companies can see the benefits from a cobot’s versatility. Collaborative robots can be programmed and reprogrammed quickly, so they can be used for a variety of functions, with a quick and easy change in between.

 

Manufacturers can take advantage of this flexibility to place a collaborative robot at the most suitable point in the assembly line, to ensure it has the greatest impact on the business. SMEs should look to collaborative robots particularly for smaller tasks, as this means it can be added to current infrastructure rather than replacing the entire system.

 

Robots go mobile

British online supermarket Ocado is using collaborative robots to improve its maintenance processes. The company collaborated with manufacturers to build the ARMAR-6 prototype, an autonomous, humanoid robot that can help engineers reduce time spent on maintenance in the factory. The ARMAR-6 uses a three-camera system to detect and recognise humans and objects, speech recognition to understand commands and hands with grippers to pick up objects.

 

“The ambition is that the robot will be able to decide what the technician’s intentions are and chip-in as appropriate at the right point in time,” explains Graham Deacon, robotics research team leader at Ocado Technology. This will assist technicians in maintaining the automated warehouses the company relies on to complete orders.”

 

The future

Robots like the ARMAR-6 are changing how we interact with machinery. In the future, this relationship has the potential to grow even more. Artificial intelligence and machine learning allows robots to learn as they work and make their own decisions.

 

As cobots experience more, they will be able to recognise and anticipate issues, alerting humans of any potential breakdowns. Employees or robots could then carry out maintenance on the machine before it impacts production.

 

In future, it may be possible to program a cobot to independently complete maintenance tasks across the factory floor. As they are lightweight and cage-free, manufacturers could mount a cobot onto an automated guided vehicle (AGV), so it can freely move around the factory without disrupting human workers.

 

More technology in the factory could just mean more machines that are at risk of breakdown. However, the growing capabilities of automated technologies such as collaborative robots can improve maintenance processes to ultimately optimise productivity. One day, a robot may be able to fix itself.