Manufacturing With Robots Helps Data Collection

May 3, 2017

If you can measure it, you can improve upon it. That's why industries from aerospace and automotive to foundries and pharmaceuticals capture all the process data they can. For generations, those numbers were logged manually, and production workers themselves were a valuable source of information. Yet with repetitive, dirty and dangerous operations increasingly performed by robots, who will report on what's happening when manufacturing gets done?

Industry 4.0

Originally a German expression, Industry 4.0 is the next leap in manufacturing, to an era of “cyber-physical integration.” Sensor-equipped machines communicate with one another across the internet. Vast quantities of data are captured, shared and stored. “Big data” software tools automate analysis and support decentralized decision-making. It’s no longer necessary for people to log production statistics manually and trying to spot trends. With Industry 4.0, this is done for them, freeing people from mundane tasks for more creative tasks like solving problems and finding new improvement opportunities.

Industry 4.0 and Robotics

Manufacturing companies are installing ever-increasing numbers of robots. These machines are taking on many of the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs previously performed by human workers. The reasons why robotic automation is the way forward are many and various, but hinge on repeatability, consistency, speed and dexterity.

Robots can do far more than just manipulate materials, workpieces or tools. They can gather and send data about the processes they work on, and they can respond to data sent by other machines. Thus, robots are an essential component of Industry 4.0.

Capturing Data

The key to data capture is the sensors incorporated into many new robotic work cells. Cameras locate objects in 2-D and 3-D space, and send coordinates to the robot controller. This generates offsets to the programmed points, and the robot repositions the gripper or tool accordingly.

Vision systems aren't the only sensor technology producing data. Torque monitoring and force sensors provide feedback on assembly fit, tightness and even weight. Part dimensions can be logged through feedback from grippers. Temperatures can be recorded by incorporating thermocouples in appropriate locations.

Responding to Data

In Industry 4.0, data flows between machines. Robots can receive information from upstream processes about the next workpiece to arrive. This might describe its size, shape or weight. It could define the task needed — fastener insertion, welding, painting — or might indicate material properties like hardness. Just as one worker might tell a colleague about the next job, robots share information and adapt, as needed.

Putting Data to Work

Every piece of data conveys information about the manufacturing processes. Analysis may reveal trends or patterns holding the key to efficiency improvements or waste reduction: cycle-time variation might be seasonal, time of day could affect heat treatment results, raw material sources could correlate with how stamped parts vary in size, etc. In every case, robots and robotic technology help capture data needed to evaluate process improvement.

Measure to Improve

Robots are at work in almost every manufacturing sector, making companies more competitive by improving quality and increasing output. With advanced sensor technology and the connectivity of Industry 4.0, they capture process data on every cycle. Subsequent analysis with “big data” tools and human judgment provides insights never before realized, and opens the door to higher efficiency.

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