(Above) Automation demonstrations at IMTS 2018 include power and force limiting collaborative robots equipped with sensitive contact detection, which allows them to share workstations with people.
Chicago, Illinois – IMTS 2018 – The International Manufacturing Technology Show – will bring people and automation closer together with exhibits highlighting the benefits of collaborative robots, cobots.
“Automation suppliers have made tremendous leaps with software, control, and sensor technology that enable quantifying what the robot feels. If it feels anything out of the ordinary, it will stop before exerting too much force,” says Mike Cicco, president & CEO, Fanuc America Corp. and a board member of AMT – The Association For Manufacturing Technology, which owns and produces IMTS. “Where robots previously operated in restricted areas, we can now bring people and automation together to improve assembly operations.”
As cobot examples, consider a situation where a robot bin picks a heavy ball screw and holds it while an operator inserts bearings or an electronics assembly; where a human performs the complicated chore of routing cables through a chassis and a robot performs repetitive tasks, such as driving screws.
“Collaborative robots, mobile robots, IIoT-enabled systems (Industrial Internet of Things), artificial intelligence (AI), and automation careers will be some of the dominant automation trends at IMTS 2018,” says AMT’s VP – Technology, Tim Shinbara.
Cicco believes that machine tool owners and managers attending IMTS should explore collaborative and mobile robots, and that’s true for both low- to high-volume operations. He envisions a work cell where the robot could tend the CNC, such as loading and unloading on long part runs. The cobot could function without requiring additional guarding and the operators could go about their routine without safety concerns; improvements to safety standards reflecting current technology now make this possible. For small batches or other instances where manually tending the CNC makes sense, the robot could be pushed to the side or moved to another cell.
(Left) Automation advances on display at IMTS 2018 include articulated robot arms with 3D area sensors (easy-to-use vision tools) that enable bin picking setup in a matter of minutes.
“Automation mobility is moving forward. Equipment used to be bolted to the floor, but now there is a whole slew of what people are calling mobile robots, which pairs an automated guided vehicle with an articulated arm robot,” Cicco says. “We’ve also found interesting ways to deliver parts to robots and automated cells through mobile robot platforms.”
Instead of investing in automation for each milling operation, a mobile robot can tend multiple machines, notably for operations with long cycle times.
Mobile robots can be self-propelled, manually wheeled, or skid-mounted. In the past, relocating a robot would have required reteaching all of its movement points using a pendant control. The new generation of mobile robots eliminate this issue. Using fiducial markers – reference dots placed on the CNC – the mobile robot uses a vision system to capture images of the dots. If operators orient the robot relatively close to its original position, the robot can recalibrate all of its teach points, saving hours of programming time.
“We’ve seen quite an advancement with mobile robots that can be parked away when not in use and then be quickly and effectively deployed,” Cicco says.
For job shops and manufacturers who want to save their human talent for high-value operations, using mobile robots for tedious tasks make sense, as Cicco explained the industry is running into a shortage of robotic talent; just as job shops and manufacturers cannot find people who want to become machinists, they are having a hard time finding people to program and maintain robots. Responding to this need, automation suppliers continue to work toward a goal of making operating a robot as intuitive as powering up a smartphone or PC.
MTConnect 10th Anniversary
IMTS 2018 marks the 10th anniversary of the launch of MTConnect– a set of open, royalty-free standards that fosters greater interoperability between controls, devices, and software applications – and Cicco, an electrical engineer, served on AMT’s MTConnect Technical Committee.
He explains the vision at the time was for the manufacturing world to develop a protocol that enabled controls, software, and devices to communicate with the simplicity of connecting USB devices to a PC, e.g., a mouse, a computer, and a printer, all from different manufacturers, that can work seamlessly simply by installing the appropriate drivers.
“AMT and IMTS were light years ahead of everyone else when it came to funding, leading the development, and marketing of MTConnect,” Cicco notes. “Fast forward a decade, and you can see a host of automation and machine tool providers demonstrating the benefits of connected devices at IMTS 2018.”
One of the technology demonstrations will occur at AMT’s Emerging Technology Center (ETC) in the North Building.
The demonstration features a vertical computer numerical control (CNC) mill, a ROS-I (robot operating system-industrial) interface, and an articulated robotic arm that autonomously transfers the milled part to a coordinate measuring machine (CMM).
“For the first time at IMTS, we will demonstrate an MTConnect-enabled ecosystem. This many-to-many interface enabled system could demonstrate how data sharing creates a closed-loop system,” Shinbara says. “Using data from the CMM, the CNC could compensate for tool wear by recalculating its offsets to maintain tolerances closer to the median of the specification.”
“As another MTConnect example, automation providers can run specific analytics that indicate the health of the robotic system and its individual components,” Cicco says. “Instead of unplanned downtime for check-ups and maintenance, especially if a part still retains a high percentage of useful life, automation systems can communicate what needs maintenance and when, essentially achieving zero downtime.”
Connectivity is the key for companies that want to improve quality, hold tighter tolerances, push machine utilization rates to 90%, and accomplish a host of continuous improvement objectives.
AI, students, and the future
Looking back a decade and comparing that to exhibits at IMTS 2018, one of the more impactful technology advances will be the use of vision systems on robot arms for bin picking.
(Right) Leading automation suppliers enthusiastically support the Smartforce Student Summit at IMTS 2018. “Manufacturing has a tremendous need for skilled talent at all levels, and we are committed to inspiring tomorrow’s innovators, today,” says Mike Cicco, president & CEO, Fanuc America Corp.
“Early attempts to use cameras on robots would have been deemed ‘science projects’ instead of the basis for future commercial products,” Cicco says. “That has changed very rapidly. Today, industry puts robotic 3D bin picking and 3D inspection systems into use every day to increase productivity. Small- to medium-sized business owners might think such systems are too high tech, but that’s not necessarily the case.”
One of the over-the-horizon automation systems demonstrated at IMTS 2018 will combine a vision system, AI, and a deep learning algorithm so the robot can teach itself to 3D pick an entire bin. The robot will use a camera to take a picture of what’s in the bin, but it has no idea what the part looks like or where and how to pick it up. The algorithm will gauge whether the pick succeeds or fails, enabling the system to learn how to make a good pick as it empties the bin.
“The cool thing about deep learning is that if two robots perform the same operation and share their successes and failures over a neural network, they will cut learning time in half because they will never repeat the same error,” Cicco says. “If hundreds of connected AI robots perform the task, we could find answers to complex problems pretty quickly.”
Shinbara says that, “The beauty of AI and data science is that you can correlate events to causes that would not have been found naturally. A second area of AI is with process optimization. Imaging if we applied AI to the ETC demonstration. As the system learns its way through the process, it could automatically shift to rough profiling operations to obtain more life from the tool instead of sending a signal to replace a worn tool.”
The second area of AI capability focuses on very discrete tasks. A third and nascent AI capability, according to Shinbara, is a holistic approach; systems that learn to improve movements between the robot and the CMM, or a CNC that adjusts feeds and speeds over time to achieve better quality or optimize tool life.
Contrary to consumer media reports that claim robots will take over the world, robots are actually taking over dull, repetitive, and dangerous tasks to free scarce human resources to focus on other, typically more fulfilling jobs.
“People need to embrace change. Industry cannot do things the way it did 10 years ago and expect to remain profitable or competitive,” Cicco insists. “We want to change the mindset so people view automation as a new career opportunity or see how it enhances their current job. That’s true whether someone is a high school student, assembly worker, technician, shop owner, or a Ph.D. candidate.”
Students can experience automation first-hand at the Smartforce Student Summit. In partnership with leading education institutions and advanced technology companies such as Fanuc, ABB Robotics, Carl Zeiss, Festo-Didactic, Haas Automation, Heidenhain, Mastercam, Mitutoyo, and Siemens, the Smartforce Student Summit has hands-on challenges for students and Learning Labs for teachers as well as advanced students.
“Automation creates high-technology manufacturing jobs. As automation suppliers, we must help educate the next generation workforce,” Cicco says. “Collectively, automation leaders have installed thousands of robots and automation systems, mostly to high schools and two-year technical schools. We’re trying to bring back shop class mindset, but now we’re calling it robotics. Students, parents, and instructors can explore a myriad of potential careers at the Smartforce Student Summit, as well as through scores of exhibitor automation demonstrations at IMTS 2018.”