How SMEs with variable use of cobots ramp up production quickly

In times of accelerating economic activity, SMEs also have to ramp up their production again quickly. Cobots can help with this. Combined with artificial intelligence, applications such as “bin picking” are possible that were previously not feasible.

cobots ramp up production
cobots ramp up production

The disruptions to the market caused by the global pandemic are receding – the economy is currently picking up again. For example, after a long period of restraint, orders in German mechanical and plant engineering increased by 47 per cent between March and May compared to the same period last year.
However, this rapid upswing can develop into a problem, especially for small and medium-sized companies: During the crisis, many companies focused primarily on limiting costs, deferring investments and not having too many staff available. Now they have to ramp up their production as quickly as possible and ensure that they deliver their products in the usual quality.

Lean automation can offer SMEs support for a quick restart: By using flexible cobots in production, the companies are able to expand their production volume. It is particularly lucrative for medium-sized companies if they use individual collaborating robots at several different stations in the company. These investments are manageable and usually pay for themselves within a year.

Vema converts cobots in 30 minutes

The plastics processor Vema shows what flexible production can look like: Four cobots are in use here and feed a lighting measuring system, carry out pick-and-place tasks and take care of the packaging. In the future, they will also automate assembly tasks. But flexibility goes beyond various applications here: The automotive supplier makes sure that it can also use its collaborating robots with different machine set-ups and batch sizes.
Within half an hour, employees move the cobots to a new workplace, set them up and put them into operation. This allows the company to react more flexibly to the market requirements of the demanding automotive industry. Within two years, the medium-sized company increased its productivity at the stations with robots by 30 per cent. With the same number of employees, VEMA is now more concerned with the areas of product quality and customer satisfaction.

Collaborating robots reduce costs at Albrecht Jung

The manufacturer of electronic installation components Albrecht Jung, who bases its entire value chain on lean principles, also uses cobots for various tasks such as pick-and-place, screwing, packaging and assembling parts.
After a UR5 from Universal Robots initially supported the employees in assembling smart radios, the medium-sized company from Schalksmühle quickly realized the variety of functions they have: Now the employees themselves are looking for other suitable applications for the collaborating robots and also take on the programming. This significantly reduces costs and throughput times.

A new generation of cobots suitable for material handling

The performance of cobots is constantly being optimized so that they can also take on more demanding material handling tasks.
The current version of the UR10e from Universal Robots, for example, can now handle a payload of 12.5 kg with a reach of 1300 mm. In this way, the cobot can be used variably in different applications such as machine tending, material handling, packaging and palletizing, where parts and products with a higher weight are handled. The more powerful collaborative robot is also suitable for lines in which products with different weights have to be moved.
This new version has already found its way into a Cobo-Stack stacking robot, which MBO Postpress Solutions uses to stack packages with folded signatures behind folding machines for printers. To do this, the cobot grabs the stack and sets it down on pallets using variable tongs. Thanks to the increased payload, the stacking robot can now also lift larger packages and heavier products such as perfect-bound and saddle-stitched catalogues and brochures. Users can thus use the cobot more variably and thus increase their productivity.

Cobots learn to see through vision systems

It becomes even more flexible with a combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and cobots: With the help of AI, users can train the robots, among other things, for the gripping process itself – and no longer for specific workpieces. Thanks to AI, medium-sized companies can integrate cobots into their products in just a few steps. As a result, they act more flexibly and can adapt spontaneously to changing orders in high-mix/low-volume productions.
In particular, vision systems based on machine learning are used here: UR robots, for example, can recognize any object to be gripped if they are equipped with the Robobrain Vision solution from Robominds. A camera mounted on the robot arm or above the station uses AI and vision algorithms to recognize the products without the cobot having been trained beforehand.
Regardless of the coordinates, it finds the gripping points independently: the so-called “bin picking” is possible because the collaborating robot grips in a more targeted manner and also pick up unsorted workpieces individually. This makes it easier for SMEs to automate applications in order picking and logistics – and increase productivity in the long term.

ZF Friedrichshafen automates workpiece pick-up with AI

The automotive supplier ZF Friedrichshafen also uses a vision-based robot control to prepare for gear production. To do this, the robot has to remove metal rings from a box and place them on a conveyor belt.
The application, which sounds simple, has many obstacles for the cobot: The positions of the rings in the box shift, the position of the box varies, sunlight falls on the rings and there is oil or rust on some ring surfaces. Only the human colleague was able to safely deal with these numerous variances.
For this reason, ZF introduced an automated workpiece pick-up that uses AI to enable the cobot to perceive its workspace and correct its movements as needed for each task. The workers programmed the UR10e via its controller so that it positions itself over a single ring in the box.
The AI ​​of the vision-based Mirai system from Micropsi Industries then takes over control: It independently moves the robot to the next ring and places the gripper in the correct three-dimensional gripping position. After this position is reached, it is again the turn of the UR10e system, it picks up the ring and moves it onto the conveyor belt for deposit.
In this way, Mirai solved the problems caused by the variances much faster and more reliably than classic robot programming was previously able to do.

Artificial intelligence expands the possible uses of cobots

Cobots are flexible all-rounders: With the right peripherals and their lightweight construction, they can be used for a wide variety of applications and even as mobile applications. The combination with AI controls will offer users numerous other possibilities in the future since cobots perceive their environment multidimensionality with the help of image processing systems.
The collaborative robots recognize objects even when they are stacked or overlapping, which simplifies their programming. Thanks to AI, they are now also taking on tasks that were previously reserved for humans: for example, handling unsorted parts, volume measurements and quality controls. SMEs can thus integrate their cobots quickly and flexibly – and use them in a variety of ways to increase productivity.

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