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Freeing humans from repetitive tasks

Located in Quebec City, Canada, the Robotiq company was set up with one aim in mind – to free human hands from repetitive tasks - and to that end it has been focused on developing a range of tools and software for the collaborative robotics (cobots) market.

Robotiq has created an easy-to-deploy set of technologies – both hardware and software - that are helping businesses to become more productive.

As Nicolas Lauzier, product manager, Robotiq explains, “Our mission is to ‘free human hands’. There’s so much potential lost when people are required to carry out repetitive tasks. We tackle this by simplifying the deployment of collaborative robots by providing a range of flexible tools and kits to support manufacturers, whether they are looking to automate their processes or simply want to add additional capabilities to existing robotic cells.”

According to Lauzier the core technology associated with robotics, that is the hardware and the software, hasn’t changed significantly in recent years and concepts like machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) have yet to make any significant impact.

“While the mechanical and electrical controls remain familiar, what has changed is the way in which robots are deployed. We are looking at more ‘human scale’ deployments and are seeing far great flexibility in where and how they are used – those types of deployments have been made easier by the fact that robots are simpler to install and programme,” he says.

“Robots are now far more accessible. The software running them makes them far more flexible and a lot easier to programme and understand.”

Robotiq is able to supply a range of robot grippers, sensors, vision systems, and programming software.

“Today’s robots don’t need you to require extensive technical knowledge, which means that for many manufacturers it is possible to achieve a quick ROI,” Lauzier adds. In fact collaborative robot cells equipped with the company’s Plug + Play components can see a ROI within just six months.

“All of our products are designed for ease of installation and are straightforward when it comes to programming. Our technology and

software can be used to accelerate robot projects and optimise the performance of a customer’s cobots.”

The roll-out of 5G and the greater use and deployment of sensors will make it easier to connect different devices going forward, and will help to deliver on the promises of greater connectivity that comes with Industry 4.0, believes Lauzier.

“Today, robots rarely communicate with one another, they tend to work by themselves without needing to know what is going on elsewhere. The IoT and 5G will enable remote monitoring and enhanced predictive maintenance and that’s when connectivity will start to make sense.”

The automation journey

Deployment is the end of the journey and taking companies through the ‘journey of engaging with automation’ is a critical part of the overall process, according to Lauzier. The company has developed a comprehensive range of supporting material to help engineers: eLearning modules and application coaches are available to help in setting clear expectations on feasibility and cell throughput, while expert cobot guidance is available at every stage.

Companies need help in understanding what tasks they want their cobots to undertake as well as in identifying the potential of any proposed deployments.

According to Lauzier, “For many, automation may be the end goal but how they get there is more of a challenge. We work closely with customers to help identify and understand the role of automation and the benefits it can bring. There needs to be a methodology behind the deployment and significant preparation – it’s certainly not just about buying a technology.

“Our methodology is to start with simple project; where do you get the best ROI? If you start with something simple, you will accrue knowledge, it will help to build worker buy-in and you’ll be able to achieve early successes.”

In terms of engagement Robotiq tends to work closely with production managers, who want to improve their processes, or automation engineers, who may be looking at specific projects or applications

According to Lauzier investment in robotics only makes sense when a company is dealing with volumes but he is starting to see much greater diversification as to where deployments are taking place.

“In warehousing, for example, we are seeing demand for our palletising solutions where more flexibility is required and you see slower throughput,” he explains. “Likewise with PCB assemblies, there’s good potential there with the current technology.”


Safety

Cobot deployments raise the issue of safety and their safe operation so, depending on the specific installation and whether the client wants cobots working alongside humans, a detailed risk assessment will be necessary.

“Where speed isn’t a prerequisite the dangers of working with cobots are minimised, so deployments don’t need to be fenced off. The footprint of the cobot will be determined by the associated task, so you may only

need a small cell if you’re using cobots to pick and place individual parts,” he explains.

According to Lauzier, Robotiq is seeing a pick-up in demand from smaller businesses which is being driven by the growing interest in automation caused, in part, by the impact of Covid-19.

“When it comes to SMEs, there usually needs to be a minimal production value for automation to make sense, but it is certainly going in the direction that smaller companies are turning to automation.

“Our tools and software for the cobot market, like our AirPick, EPick and Robotiq Sanding Kits or our Bin Picking Kit, bring affordable systems to a broader spectrum of mid to high volume manufacturing and processing operations. All of these come with intuitive features that eliminate the need for expensive, complicated custom-designed solutions.

“These kits can be used to reassign cobots so you don’t need to be an expert in the field. By removing the need to customise we are able to make the process more flexible – plenty of companies have been burned in the past and too many robots have ended up in a corner of a plant, unused and unloved.”

Simpler technology and better software means that it is easier to re-assign roles to existing cobots and to redeploy them – when a change is required it can need carried out simply and just the once.

Solutions

Robotiq has a broad range of products that can easily be added to existing robotic systems and by using the company’s Plug + Play process are simple to integrate.

“When it comes to installation, however, you have to consider whether these ‘extras’ will improve the operation of the cell. Will you see measurable improvements and will the benefits outweigh the costs?,” asks Lauzier. “Adding new technology will add more complexity, so is that desirable?

“Palletising is one of the most commons robot applications and we are able to supply all the necessary components for installation – whether that’s a HD camera, software, and an electrical gripper with an integrated vacuum generator.

“Our customisable vacuum grippers can be used across a wide range of industrial applications, they are fast to install and can handle objects of varying sizes, shapes, materials and weights, while our Force CoPilot software can be used to automate more advanced force-sensitive applications and it’s possible to programme complex robotic movements in a matter minutes,” explains Lauzier.

Robotiq is able to provide a complete solution for locating, picking, handling, and placing flat and cylindrical parts – offering a rapid set-up. Compatible with Universal Robots, the company’s kits are being used by appliance manufacturers, automotive components suppliers, general industry, and by suppliers of metal and plastic products.

“Our Plug + Play solutions, kits and software solutions are intended to lower the barriers to entry but also allow companies to entertain the idea of automation in areas that up until now were considered too complex of costly,” says Lauzier.

Author
Neil Tyler

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