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Making the Case for Robotics

Nearly 50 years after it was invented, the six -axis robot has had a profound effect on manufacturing processes worldwide. Today’s generation of robots offers manufacturers a powerful and precise solution for an infinite number of manufacturing applications from automobiles to plastics and pharmaceuticals to food processing.


Making the Case for Robotics -01

Aside from the partnership announcement between FANUC Robotics America and Stiles Machinery at IWF 2002, and more recently Holz-Her and ROI Machinery & Automation’s Motoman demonstration at AWFS 2007, however, there has been little penetration by robotic suppliers into U.S. Woodworking facilities outside of the office furniture industry. The real strength of robotics among U.S. manufacturers is the automotive industry, a group that accounts for more than half of all robot sales. But with their largest customer base on shaky ground, robot suppliers and integrators are now actively seeking out new customers in new markets, including woodworking.

As six-axis machines capable of reaching any point in space from any angle on any plane, robots can provide the flexibility to do an infinite number of programmable tasks and offer the reliability and speed consistent with other automated woodworking machinery.

Material handling and machine tending are the two most obvious applications for a woodworking process, replacing the manual loading and unloading of large material sheets in conjunction with a saw or CNC router. Depending on the end-of-arm tooling attachments, other robot applications include sanding, routing/drilling, screw/nail assembly, top coat spraying and adhesive application.

Making the Case for Robotics -034North American Robot Sales

After a record year in 2005, the robotics industry was hit hard in 2006 by major spending cutbacks among U.S. Automobile manufacturers. Non-automotive orders in 2006 accounted for 44 percent of all orders, up from 30 percent in 2005 as robotics companies sought out new markets. The Robotic Industries Association estimates that 175,000 robots are now in use in U.S. Factories, making the U.S. second only to Japan in overall robot use.

Measuring up: robot benefits

Robots are coming down in price and manufactures are making them better, faster, easier to maintain and with more features than ever. Whether considering robotics to relieve an employee form a hazardous job or to increase production capacity, flexibility and product quality, there are a number of justification consideration to make, including:

Labor reallocation

When adding robots to a manufacturing environment, companies should first look at the areas of production where employees perform repetitive strenuous tasks or are otherwise exposed to harsh environments. “We are trying to make a factory more efficient and more productive with the same number of people it already has,”says Gary Kowalski, regional sales manager for FANUC Robotics America. “Most people have issues trying to get good quality labor, so if they can keep the labor that they have and use them in a more thoughtful way and use the robot to do the mundane, repetitive heavy lifting tasks, that’s what our goal is. Almost never do we eliminate jobs.”

With low-grade, non-skilled motion, robotics add efficiency, improved speed and quality, allowing our employees to concentrate on the more skilled and hand intensive finishing processes.
Bryan Earl, American Woodmark

Injury avoidance

By allowing the robot to handle the heavy lifting, the operator can be moved into a position that keeps him away from potentially dangerous environments. “A robot can handle a desktop or tabletop that weighs 200 pounds where otherwise you’d have two employees moving that piece and risk one of them getting hurt,” says Kevin Saylor, president of ROI Machinery & Automation. “A back injury can cost $100,000 on a workman’s comp claim. Injury avoidance is harder to put a number on than ROI, but it is something that definitely needs to be considered.

Material waste reduction

In applications such as finish spraying, the accuracy of robots can significantly reduce the amount of material waste in an operation. In other cases, it can cut down on the amount of environmental and safety gear required for manual operations. “It’s amazing how much some facilities spend on respirator cartridges and Tyvek suits,” says Kowalski. “We were working with a customer that makes laboratory furniture and was spending $300,000 on that equipment in a year.”

Increased throughput and production flow consistency

Even the best employees will wear down over the course of a nine-hour shift of loading and unloading sheets of material. As time passes, the risk of injury increases while the employee’s overall effectiveness decreases. When installed and programmed correctly, robots work in perfect synchronization with other machines in a work cell, making it easy to forecast throughput and cycle times. In a dynamic mode, robots are capable of multi-tasking using barcode readers, visual cameras and ultrasonic devices.

Quality improvement

The accuracy and repeatability offered by robots ensures parts are loaded the same way every time, with less chance for marring the product surface by eliminating human involvement.

Durability and reliability

The maintenance on most modern direct-drive robots only requires an annual greasing. Since the units themselves are sealed, they require no maintenance and can work in the harshest environments. Today’s robots last 10 years or more, and some have been in operation for more than 20 years.

Small-to medium sized manufacturing companies in the general manufacturing industries are employing robotics at an increasing rate. In Europe, robots are a common sight at woodworking factories, yet the woodworking industry in the U.S. has been slow to adopt the technology

What’s the holdup?

Making the Case for Robotics -02Small-to medium sized manufacturing companies in the general manufacturing industries are employing robotics at an increasing rate. In Europe, robots are a common sight at woodworking factories, yet the woodworking industry in the U.S. has been slow to adWoodworking industry giants like Steelcase and American Woodmark have been using robotics for several years. But today’s robotic solutions aren’t just for the large companies. Small-to medium sized manufacturing companies in the general manufacturing industry are employing robotics at an increasing rate. In Europe, robots are a common sight at woodworking factories, yet the woodworking industry in the U.S. Has been slow to adopt the technology.

There is a preconception that robots don’t apply to the woodworking industry
Gary Kowalski, Regional Sales Manager for FANUC Robotics America

“Woodworking companies aren’t seeing ads for them in trade magazines, they aren’t reading articles and case studies. In other industries where they see this all the time, it’s not a big leap of faith for someone to say, ‘If it works for Company A, then it could work for me.’ The tasks we’re looking to do in the woodworking industry are the same tasks we do in any other industry material handling is material handling. To get into the woodworking industry, we aren’t inventing new processes.”

The nature of the wood products industry presents a unique set of problems for robotic integrators- the companies between the robot manufactures and the end users that design and install the robotic systems. The random and irregular nature of wood grain and the amount of dust and wood chips left behind after a machining operation pose material handling challenges not seen in other industries. While most robots with vacuum attachments can reverse the suction flow to clean off a work table, small scrap that hasn’t been evacuated by a dust collection system can prevent the correct positioning of the work piece on the table.

Compounding the problem of robot progress is a high degree of unfamiliarity among wood products manufacturers, initial “sticker shock” and questions of robots’ feasibility in the wood processing environment.

“It can be $150,000 to $200,000 to install a robot to load and unload a CNC machine, and that’s a lot of money up front with no real assurances that it is going to do the job they want it to do,” says Saylor of people’s resistance to adopting robotics.

“My personal feeling is that before the ocost of robotics was quite high, but the pricing is cost -effective now,” says Brian Timothy, consultant for Island Precision Manufacturing, a Victoria, B.C.-based commercial millwork company that recently added a KUKA robot to its production for a large project for the Vancouver Trade and Convention Center. “The actual cost of our robot was only $55,000 and our total investment was $170,000, which includes the engineering and installation, software, two end-of-arm tooling attachments and air hold-down table.

“Another drawback for people looking at robotics has been software. A lot of woodworking companies are used to ‘disposable programs’ -you design a part, write a program, run the product and it’s gone. With robotics, it’s a more involved process to write programs for them. But that is changing as well, and it is easier to generate programs that you can use for short periods and then rewrite another program to get the robot to do another function.”

After the early adopters in the wood products industry convert to robotics, the question will become who is going to embrace it? “Once people realize the potential labor savings and see that the cost of the systems aren’t that prohibitive, that will begin to build demand in our industry,” says Timothy. “It will either be the woodworking machinery companies that bring it into the market, or the robotic companies that find a way to get it into the woodworking market.”

Ready to work: fast, flexible and powerful solutions for the woodworking industry

Making the Case for Robotics -Motoman HP 165Motoman HP 165
The Motoman HP 165 features a 363.8-lb payload, a 132.8” vertical reach and 104.4” horizontal reach. The work envelope extends behind the body, allowing space for robot tool storage or maintenance. The HP 165′s design, together with Motoman’s patented multiple robot control capability, allows the robot to be used as a six-axis part positioner to achieve a high degree of automation flexibility. The standard HP 165 robot is floor-mounted, but a shelf-mounted version (HP 165R) is available. The NX100 controller features a Windows CE programming pendant, fast processing, easy-to-use INFORM III programming language and robust PC architecture. The NX100 offers a high degree of multiple robot control capability (up to four robots) to minimize the cost of integration and eliminate risk of robot collisions.

Making the Case for Robotics -KUKA Robotics KR 60 KSKUKA Robotics KR 60 KSThe KR 60 KS shelf-mounted robots from KUKA Robotics have payload capacities of 132, 100 and 66 pounds with a supplementary load of 77 pounds. The maximum reach extends to 88”, 96” and 104”. The KR 60 KS is suitable for handling, loading and unloading application, as well as painting and surface treatment, adhesive application, packaging and order picking and other applications. The series weighs between 1,322 lbs and 1,356 lbs depending on the configuration.

The R-2000iA series, available from Stiles Machinery, is FANUC Robotics’ six-axis heavy-payload family of industrial robots. It offers improved performance, reliability and maintainability and features the intelligent robot control system. Slim arm and wrist assemblies minimize interference with peripherals and allow operation in confined spaces. Large allowable wrist moments and inertias meet a variety of heavy handling challenges. Options include an enhanced severe dust and liquid protection package with two-part epoxy paint for harsh environments and auxiliary axes for integration of peripheral servo-controlled devices.


By Jeff Crissey