March 19, 2014      

What’s keeping SMBs away from robots?

According to a recent report in Vertical Systems Reseller, Europe is experiencing a marked increase in deployment of automated material-handling equipment to solve its labor challenges.

Solution providers say the growth is less aggressive in the U.S., but more sophisticated operations are starting to embrace it.

Rethink Robotics claims that there are over 300,000 SMBs (most with 30 or fewer employees) in the U.S. that could benefit from robot automation for some or all of their operations.

The push back among SMBs wary about embracing robots in their logistics operations comes down to these three: Expense, expertise and fear, says Volker Kruger, Associate Professor at Aalborg University’s Department of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, who heads a project called, STAMINA.

The goal of STAMINA is to eliminate all three of the above areas of resistance.

In short, SMBs aren?t buying because:

  • Expense of a robot which can cost from $30K and up, especially when 50 percent of that cost is in the software and parts. Unacceptable expenses also arise around infrastructure, the downtime or inconvenience time when converting logistics operations from manual or semi-automated to robot automation.
  • See related:

    SMBs Switch Over Production to Robots?in a Day!

  • Expertise is always a problem when considering the software programming necessary in getting the robots online, and the reprogramming when workflows need changing.
  • Fear over reliance on robot technology; fear about making a catastrophic error in capital investments on robots and fear over a big-time hit to the bottom line because of robots; and honest due diligence about an accurate appraisal of ROI.

Tough economic times have increased the wariness as well as lingering memories surrounding the 2008 recession.

All of the above are all valid concerns for not going forward with a robot purchase, but to do nothing will eventually cause more damage in the long run.

Breaking through the expense-expertise-fear impasse

AALBORG UNIVERSITY: Kruger and his team?s challenge is part of a $7.4M EU funded research project aimed at making robots available to small and medium-sized companies without the need of robotics expertise.

The automotive industry is a good training ground, but Kruger emphasizes that STAMINA is not an industry specific project. Its results will generally be a benefit for small and medium-sized companies because the need for expensive robotic specialists will be removed.

Kruger and his associates at Aalborg University, are partnering with researchers from Bonn, Freiburg, Edinburgh and Porto, as well as the businesses PSA Peugeot Citroen and BA Systemes, STAMINA aims to overcome the current limitations of industrial robots.

See related:

STAMINA: Research Project Presentation

The major challenge is that currently robots can only work in carefully designed environments with everything in a very specific order. As soon as something is out of the ordinary, things start to fall apart.

So robots have only been used where it?s possible to create a precise setup and where a large number of identical components are handled. We want to change this with intelligent robots that can drive to where their help is needed and can react to unforeseen changes and operate in unstructured environments.

stamina project robot

Customized products

One of the end results from STAMINA will be a robotic system that is able to drive automatically to where it is needed, has cameras and laser scanners so that it can see, and has a robotic arm so that it can be used for a large variety of handling tasks.

Furthermore, the robot can be programmed and controlled even by persons without any robotic experience.

Many small and medium-sized companies don?t use robots for three reasons: it’s expensive, they don?t have the expertise, or they?re afraid. We aim to make it easier and safer for the inexperienced to use robots.

This is possible because the new robots come with some intelligence. For example, when the robot is driving around, it is able to figure out its own position, and you only have to point to an object to tell the robot what it needs to work with, explains Kruger.

An ?Apple approach? to robots

When a manufacturer updates a product, most of the existing robots have to be reprogrammed. This is time consuming and expensive and STAMINA is trying to make things easier.

Kruger compares it to Apple’s approach to consumer electronics where parameters are deliberately peeled away allowing non-experts easy and non-confusing use of robot functionalities.

At the same time, the robot brings enough intelligence to figure out many parameters on its own. Simpler programming will hopefully mean more customized products and thus a more competitive edge.

More intelligent robots will allow companies to update their products more often and thus respond more quickly to changes in consumer demands and offer customized products without having to raise prices.

In Denmark, we are known for design and for innovative products that are defined according to user needs and wants, says Kruger. What is needed is a higher level of automation.

Dangerous colleagues

stamina robot 3

One problem with letting more robots loose in the workplace is that in their traditional design with quick and powerful movements they can actually be dangerous to have as a colleague.

Usually, robots cannot react if a person is suddenly in the way so there are many safety regulations to prevent accidents. We?re working with a new generation of smaller robots with built-in sensors. Using their sensors, the robots are able to avoid hitting someone, explains Kruger.

The researchers will also evaluate how employees experience their collaboration with robots and the potential challenges in having a greater mix of people and intelligent machines in the same working environment.

Unhealthy routines

The project has selected three specific use-case scenarios in automotive factories where the mobile robots will take over routine tasks such as making components from suppliers ready for assembly.

This requires that the robot recognizes individual car parts, takes them out of their boxes without damaging the part and even puts related items together so they are ready to be installed in the correct order on the assembly line.

One of our examples deals with allowing a robot to pick out parts in a warehouse. Most robots can?t pick up parts unless they are in a very specific place in a very specific position.

This has normally been done by humans, but now there is a great potential for increasing the automation level, says Kruger.

Robots don?t get tired, distracted or disabled by routine work

Two of the three examples in the project deal with lifting very heavy car parts like alternators. Different cars use different alternators, and they must be brought to the assembly line in the correct order.

They can weigh up to 20lbs so a worker handles up to 12 tons per shift. Fatigue at the end of a shift can lead to random mistakes. This is a job that is harmful to humans and should be given to robots.

At the same time, robots can help to solve the impending demographic challenges of our aging society, says Kruger.

Low-level of automation

Handling individual parts in an assembly process is a task in the automotive industry where the automation level is below 30 percent due to large variations in the products and the diversity of suppliers and parts.

Quality control also comes into play. When people handle parts, they look at them and are automatically able to sort out parts that are damaged.

I was surprised myself at how much human labor is still needed. Robots currently do things like painting and welding. But if, for example, a windshield has to be installed, the chassis has to be secured with millimeter accuracy, and you need to take into account safety, programming robots and so on.

There?s a lot of overhead. Sometimes it pays to use robots, but often it?s not feasible.

STAMINA is trying to reduce the costs and complications so that robots can be put on the job.