Vision to succeed

Nigel Platt explains how vision-guided robotic (VGR) technology could help profitability


The UK’s manufacturing sector is facing probably its toughest ever set of challenges as the country’s economy reels from the ongoing effects of the global economic slowdown.

On the one hand, there is the need to continue producing good-quality competitively priced products for domestic and overseas markets. On the other there is the need to trim costs further in order to boost competitiveness and retain profitability. This, however, is further complicated by fluctuations in commodity and energy prices.

Faced with conditions such as these, it is easy to be pessimistic. However, there has never been a better time for companies to start putting new systems into effect that they may not have previously considered, either because of perceived costliness or lack of time.

As a new technology already proven to deliver enhanced levels of cost efficiency, reliability and productivity in applications around the world, vision-guided robots could prove to be the answer to many existing industry needs. Vision-guided technology effectively allows ‘blind’ robots to see, opening up new production possibilities over and above the well-documented efficiencies associated with the deployment of robotic equipment.

Put simply, vision-guided technology equips a robot with a camera or sensor that it uses to react to changes in the position of an item or part during a production process.

These robots can automatically react to changes in their operational environment and are especially suitable for handling multiple products without the need for any mechanical adjustments or additional tooling. In many industries, the technology is opening up new areas for robotic systems that could previously only be handled by manual workers.

A vision-guided robot system typically incorporates three core parts: the robot itself, the vision system and the bulk handling system, which is usually a hopper or conveyor. In a conveyor-based application, the vision system, which may or may not be integrated into the robot, will check and determine the position of the parts or items being run down the conveyor. Using this data, the robot can react accordingly to select and handle items, in many cases setting its own priorities as to which items to handle first.

Despite their proven benefits in applications worldwide, the adoption of robots in the UK has traditionally met with a disappointing reception, based primarily on the perceived cost.

What many manufacturers fail to realise, however, is that calculating the ROI of a robot system should consider more than just the basic cost of the system versus production and labour savings. By broadening the range of tasks that can be handled by robots, companies have the ability to get more out of both their production lines and their staff; for example through reducing injury caused by repetitive strain. The innate intelligence of a vision-guided robot means it can be adapted to handle different tasks.

The benefits, however, of implementing vision-guided robot systems will not materialise if these systems are not carefully planned and implemented and if operators are not sufficiently trained to use them.

To get the most from vision-guided robots, the end-user must: know exactly how, where and why it will be used and how it will fit into existing processes; consider what products it will need to handle and at what speed, as well as any other ways the robot could be used, for example handling multiple processes; and take a simple approach to start with, keeping any potential complications or additional technology to one side until more familiar with the system.

The end-user should only implement the system once every possible scenario has been tested and every potential error has been identified and corrected.

It is also vital to ensure the purchase of the best vision-guided robot, a decision that takes into consideration the work it has been bought to do and the operator’s ability to manipulate it for that purpose. ABB’s TrueView vision-guided robotics system provides a fully integrated package combining an ABB robot, off-the-shelf hardware and eVisionFactory (eVF) software designed to enable easy programming and operation. The TrueView system eliminates the historical challenges involved when attempting to combine disparate hardware, software and integration practices into a functional system, providing a good starting point for those new to implementing a vision-guided robot into their process.

The benefits derived from a vision-guided robot are pretty much limited only by the extent of the operator’s imagination. But to get to this point, it is vital to ensure that operators are qualified to get the best from a system. Developments in robotic-control software have greatly simplified the way in which robots can be programmed and tested, opening up the training process to even those with little or no prior experience. This can often be an ideal way of redeploying manual operators displaced by a robot, ensuring that they are retained while also boosting their skills set. As a means of cutting costs and maximising productivity and profitability, vision-guided robots could provide the ideal solution for UK manufacturers that are looking for a way through the current economic storm.

Their short payback (estimated by some experts as anywhere between six months to a year), plus their ability to handle tasks only previously possible with a manual worker, can help companies to operate a leaner, more profitable process with lower overheads and greater levels of productivity. The need for trained operators also provides opportunities for manual workers to hone their skills, providing a more skilled workforce.