We think about robots taking parts out of a mold, sometimes putting them back in, assembling components, packing parts into shipping containers and perhaps cleaning the floor. But we may be overlooking another type of job for robots — maintenance.
South Korea’s Doosan Robotics had a striking exhibit in April at Automate 2019 with two long-armed collaborative robots polishing a new Jaguar automobile. There was a cobot at each end of the car and, between them, they could polish all body panels.
In addition, a Kuka representative described a project with 3M Co. that pairs a Kuka robot and 3M products for grinding, sanding and polishing. The system, called ready2_grind, is preconfigured and designed for grinding that will be able to blend welds.
A robot can now be programmed to look for blemishes or surface irregularities, correct the flaws and make sure the entire part is polished or sanded to a certain specification.
Polishing an automobile and grinding/sanding tasks are possible for robots because of force-torque sensors and vision capabilities.
Force-torque-sensors are hockey-puck-shaped devices commonly added to robot arms to control pressure and motion. The sensors are connected to the robot’s software and make it possible for a robot to know how much to tighten a screw or sand a surface.
Significant advances are being made in robotic vision products, particularly in making it easier to program or train a robot to detect anomalies and correct them to a specified standard.
The European Union is conducting a research project to develop robots to perform maintenance in the aeronautics and construction industries. The project’s goals are reducing maintenance time and cutting down on the number of tasks that could pose risk to maintenance personnel.
The project marries robots and winch-driven cables in easily reconfigurable modules to navigate large items.
Another interesting EU-funded project is called SecondHands, which is developing a cobot to safely and intelligently work with humans in factories. The concept is to develop a cobot that can watch a human to learn tasks that require precision or physical strength. The project utilizes artificial intelligence, machine learning and advanced vision systems.
How about handling delicate parts during maintenance? A sub-project of SecondHands, called SoMA, is working on developing soft robotic hands, or grippers, that can handle anything that can be easily damaged.
The EU has taken a lead in much of the practical research and development as part of a program called Horizon 2020. It involves private companies and research universities from across Europe. You can bet that anything developed during this project will quickly make it to our market.
Every plastics processing executive I speak to complains about the difficulty of finding qualified workers, and maintenance tasks often require specialized skills and knowledge that are even more difficult to replace in a graying workforce.
Pardon the cliché, but processors need to think outside the box when it comes to maintenance. The ability to connect your presses through the internet to the machinery manufacturer to get repair help is a useful feature. But there are plenty of tasks, particularly with moving and maintaining molds, that could be automated in the future.
Toensmeier joins PMM’s editorial team
Toensmeier has more than 35 years of business journalism experience, much of it with Modern Plastics and Aviation Week and Space Technology. Over the years, he has written about plastics and chemicals, manufacturing, technology development and applications, part design, defense and aerospace and other technical topics.
A graduate of the University of Missouri, he lives in Hamden, Conn.
Ron Shinn, editor