Robotic Automation Helps Bring Manufacturing Back Onshore

New technologies like three-dimensional vision, offline programming, and force-sensing technology being used in robotic automation systems are helping manufacturers bring production back onshore, according to an engineer at leading material handling system integrator Bastian Solutions.

The increased use of robotic automation in the factory is contributing to the trend of reshoring (bringing manufacturing that's been outsourced overseas where the cost of labor is lower back to North America), Steve Kruse, a senior applications engineer at Bastian Solutions, said in an interview.

This is good news for US manufacturers, who have been looking for ways to regain control of the manufacturing process due to quality issues, as well as loss of business and control of the manufacturing process. "Some of the quality issues have left a sour taste," he told us. "Manufacturers are looking towards automation to bring products back, get the quality up, and still maintain a competitive price in the global market."

Kruse will discuss reshoring and the technologies contributing to it at the upcoming Design and Manufacturing Midwest conference in Chicago, September 10–12. He spoke with Design News recently about his views on the topic, and about some of the points he plans to make at the conference.

Bastian creates custom robotics and a range of other solutions for manufacturers, but also works mainly with two robotics automation companies, FANUC and ABB, to implement their technologies in robotics systems.

Fanuc's iRVision 3D Area Sensor, for example, is a key technology that's making the manufacturing process more efficient, increasing production throughput, and allowing for more control in the overall production process, Kruse said.

"The vision technologies [for robots] have come a long way in the last decade," he told us. "Traditionally, vision has been two-dimensional... but a lot of effort has been applied toward 3D vision in the recent past. There are a lot of innovations that are expanding the application boundaries of robotics."

With two-dimensional vision, robots on the factory floor could only locate a part on a flat conveyor and retrieve it, "but it had to be flat on one plane and two dimensional," Kruse said. Now, with technology like the iRVision 3D Area Sensor, manufacturing robots can engage in random-order bin picking, enabling the machine to identify and sort through items, pick them up, and place them on a conveyor with more accuracy and efficiency, simplifying what has traditionally been a difficult and complex robotics process.

Three-dimensional vision technologies are allowing robots to perform mixed-unit load palletizing, or putting multiple shapes and sizes of products on one pallet. The technologies are as also guiding robots through the assembly process. All of this is dramatically improving the manufacturing process in North America, Kruse said.

A technology often used with these new vision capabilities is force-sensing technology, which allows a robot to know just how much force it must apply to something to complete a task. For example, "if you're trying to put a shaft inside of a hole, you use vision to find location, use force sensing to guide the robot in the assembly process," Kruse said.

In addition to these technologies, another key enhancement in robotics automation systems that manufacturers are beginning to implement is the ability to program robots offline, away from the factory floor. This saves manufacturers from having to take a system offline to program the robot on the factory floor, which is typically how a new robot is deployed in the manufacturing system. "By having offline programming, customers are now able to program the robot in a virtual world on a PC, then transfer that program out to the factory floor and use some tools to calibrate that program," Kruse said. "This drastically minimizes the time it takes to program a work cell."

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