As manufacturers continue to learn about the benefits of smaller collaborative robot systems and their abilities to work safer around human employees, new cost structures like Robots as a Service are being implemented as an option beyond the upfront capital expenses. These dual trends can help manufacturers adapt to a changing workforce within the manufacturing space, says Louisiana engineering firm and systems integrator QDS Systems.
The company recently announced a new leasing and renting finance model for its automated systems and collaborative robotics, aka cobots, offerings. Working with the Lease Corporation of America, the Baton Rouge-based QDS lets companies rent or lease equipment from 12 months up to 60 months, starting at $500 per month with fixed monthly payments through the lease.
In an exclusive interview with Robotics Business Review, QDS Systems President & CEO Stan Prutz discussed the new program, collaborative robotics and the needs of manufacturing clients with an aging and changing workforce.
Q: When did you first start seeing requests for leasing cobots, as opposed to companies buying them outright?
Prutz: We started to see requests for cobots over the last couple of years. Companies understand the value that collaborative robots can have on the future of their organizations, but capital projects can take time to get approved. QDS Systems developed the idea of leasing cobots to make it easier for our clients to invest in this new technology. Leases often can happen faster, and the monthly payments are sometimes offset by reduced monthly payroll expenses. The option to lease a cobot makes the investment more digestible.
We have also heard from clients who are concerned because Baby Boomer employees are retiring, and for the next 15 years the industry could be short 1 to 2 million workers every year. Cobots can help these companies to better deal with the labor shortage.
Q: We’ve heard anecdotally that companies that look to a “robots as a service” or leasing model tend to be small or midsize businesses that don’t want to go the capital expense route. Has this been the case from your customer requests, or are there other reasons that a larger company may look to leasing?
Prutz: Yes, this has been the case among our clients, who are often small to midsize businesses that are not looking to spend months raising capital for this type of investment. However, larger companies may also look to renting as a way to test out a new process or concept before they invest a ton of capital. Any area where there is an opportunity for human-to-robot workflow is a good option for leasing.
Q: Is there any particular industry segments among your customer base where leasing/renting makes more sense?
Prutz: Anywhere there is an opportunity for a human-to-robot workflow would benefit from leasing cobots. For example, packaging, food and beverage, machining shops – any industry with assembly line tasks. Businesses that are looking to offload boring, hazardous, or dirty tasks could also benefit from cobots.
Q: Apart from the cost, which this program seems to address, what are some other hurdles that customers have when thinking about adding collaborative robots to their operation?
Prutz: Another challenge our clients run into when thinking about adding cobots to their operation is how the business can integrate the technology with their current processes, especially those that involve humans.
Which process is right for collaborative robot systems?
Q: In cases where humans are involved in the process of working with a cobot, what methods are used to integrate the human-robot collaboration? Is that usually done by the business or the integrator?
There is quite a bit written in recent months by major consulting and robotic manufacturing firms predicting the likely path forward for AI devices, including cobots, is through human-machine collaboration. Businesses need to rethink their production processes, putting collaborative robots where they are the best choice, and people where they are the best. Tasks more suitable for cobots may be mundane, repeatable, prone to Worker’s Compensation injuries, or those that need high precision and repeatability. Tasks more suitable to humans may contain a great deal of variability and judgment, which current cobot technology is not well suited for. This acknowledges that collaborative robots today have many limitations versus a human, and this isn’t likely to change quickly, despite what gets printed in the mainstream media.
I think it is likely that during the next 10 years, cobots will become widely deployed and a worker’s best friend, relieving them of drudgery, freeing them to focus on the more interesting mentally challenging tasks, and rewarding the manufacturer through the improved productivity of the overall process.
The businesses we see successfully moving forward toward improving their implementation of automation have top management that understands the importance of automating to maintain competitiveness. They are willing to back this commitment with funding. They intentionally create an automation initiative, assigning a responsible individual who pulls together a cross-disciplinary team to identify the best potential automation targets. An integrator typically gets involved early in this process, but the business needs to lead it.
Preferably an integrator has skills not only with cobots, but with automation and control system hardware and software from all the major suppliers. Cobots are a great new tool, but they’re not always the best automation solution. Such an integrator will be there to assist in assessing potential applications and know the best-in-class automation tools to apply for a cost-effective and reliable solution.
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Q: Why did you choose Universal Robots as your partner for collaborative robot systems? Did you look at other companies?
Prutz: We did look at other companies. The traditional robotics vendors have been slow to adopt collaborative technology. We chose Universal Robots as our partner because they are the number one collaborative robot manufacturer. They developed their cobot technology independent of the traditional robotics industry with the end user in mind, offering vastly simplified software configuration, integrated safety, on-line training, and an app store for pre-engineered solutions like welding, force and vision.
In industry, the product has to be a solid, reliable one that can run 24×7 without issue. Universal Robots is the only cobot vendor with more than 10,000 proven applications in industry worldwide, a state-of-the-art high-volume manufacturing facility, and the backing of a multi-billion-dollar U.S.-based parent company, Teradyne.
Getting started wtih cobots
Q: When and how should a manufacturer get started in deploying collaborative robotic technology?
Prutz: Given the projected growth rate of the industry and the likelihood it could benefit them, most discrete manufacturers should be seriously considering deploying this technology. It starts with a survey of existing production methods, and where cobots may be deployed to assist existing personnel to improve efficiency and production rates, improve product quality, or reduce injuries.
Q: What are three things that customers ask you when they are considering a robotics system?
Prutz: First, we are usually asked to conduct an engineering study of their current production methods, to determine where cobots might provide benefits to their operations. This helps identify the key potential applications. Second, a further study is done to evaluate the detailed requirements of the targeted application, creating a budget, and calculating the ROI of the application. With this solid planning in place, the third stage of implementation flows easily.
Q: What industries have adopted (or are on the cusp of adopting) robotics technologies?
Prutz: Industries that have adopted robotics technologies include automotive, plastics, food & beverage, and machine shops. A variety of discrete manufacturers use robots for assembly, gluing, polishing, deburring, and packaging operations. Those on the cusp of adopting include building products, construction and agriculture, often hard hit by labor shortages.
Q: Do you find any industries that are still waiting for more robotic developments before they invest?
Prutz: Some industries have applications outside of the currently available technology. Today, collaborative robots are generally limited to lifting around 20 lbs. and have a 4-foot reach, similar to a human arm. Cobots are designed to move at the speed of a human and to be able to safely work alongside them collaboratively, so by definition they are not high speed — I don’t see this changing.
This speed limits some applications in the food and beverage market, where the cobot needs to be able to keep up with the speed of the process line. While end-of-arm tooling for soft grippers are available, manipulating textiles in relatively simple applications is just starting to be experimented with. There are pre-engineered solutions for force sensing, and most applications can be covered with available solutions. There are also pre-engineered solutions for vision, but some applications are beyond the capability of these systems, or a custom vision system is required.