The annual MD&M West trade show and conference always bring the most cutting edge technology to the forefront. It also brings the manufacturing and technology industries most prolific voices and minds to discuss the biggest challenges in the industry. Voices like Kristian Hulgard of OnRobot.
Q&A With Kristian Hulgard, General Manager of OnRobot
Kristian Hulgard is the General Manager of the American division of OnRobot. According to its website, OnRobot is a leading provider of end-of-arm tooling for collaborative applications. Hulgard has been part of the collaborative robot market since the beginning and is a recognized expert in cobot applications and the activation of robots in collaborative spaces.
Accumold: What are a few areas in the next few years we could see small robots or sensors filling job gaps?
Kristian Hulgard: The job gaps that small robots excel at addressing are what we call the “3D tasks”, the Dirty, the Dull, and the Dangerous. Basically, jobs that manufacturers can’t staff with people that do not want to work like robots. These tasks can now be staffed with – robots.
Here’s more background on the current labor shortages and how collaborative robot applications can address these: When the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) issued its Outlook Survey last year, they confirmed that finding skilled workers remains one of the top challenges for manufacturing executives today. In the same year, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) reported that 89 percent of manufacturers were having difficulty finding skilled workers. The situation isn’t expected to improve anytime soon. According to the most recent skills gap study from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute—NAM’s social-impact arm—more than half of the 4.6 million manufacturing jobs created worldwide over the next decade will go unfulfilled.
These open positions have real-world consequences. Asked how they were addressing the skills shortage, executives’ responses ranged from assigning more overtime (70.3 percent), relying more on temporary staffing services (57.7 percent), and encouraging retirees to stay longer in their roles (30.7 percent)—all strategies that adversely impact businesses’ bottom lines. On top of this, an additional 28.8 percent of execs reported they had to turn away new business or had lost revenue opportunities because of workforce constraints.
In response to the labor shortage, manufacturers are turning to automation to maintain production levels, but for many, the ability to implement traditional automation is slowed by the technology skills gap. According to the Manufacturing Institute, only 20 percent of manufacturing jobs are considered “unskilled,” or requiring little or no training, with the remaining jobs requiring two or more years of training.
These challenges are driving the growth of collaborative automation, which is now the fastest-growing segment of robotics. This can be directly attributed to collaborative automation’s ease of integration and flexibility, small footprint, safety alongside human workers, low cost, and fast return on investment—characteristics that make cobot systems attractive for both large and small manufacturers. Collaborative automation is also helping manufacturers meet changes in consumer expectations for highly customized, constantly updated, and increasingly innovative products. With collaborative automation, manufacturers can run smaller product lines, build multiple alternative models, and adapt quickly when market needs change or competitive products are introduced.
While early robots were used to improve productivity on a mass scale, the technology was expensive both to purchase and install, requiring safety systems that tied up large areas of the factory floor, specialized tooling, and software, and engineering staff to program the system and keep it operating.
Collaborative automation offers many of the same benefits as traditional robotics: taking over dirty, dangerous, and repetitive tasks that human workers don’t want to do; improving product quality and reducing scrap; and augmenting productivity and yield. But collaborative automation also offers manufacturers many new benefits that traditional robotics cannot.
Due to their built-in safety systems, light weight, and small footprint, cobots can work right next to human workers once a risk assessment has been performed, and most do not require safety cages or disruptive redesigns of the plant floor. Cobot arms are available with a range of payload and reach to meet the needs of many different applications, such as machine tending, pick-and-place, assembly, and packaging. Innovation in collaborative end-of-arm tooling (EoAT) such as grippers and other peripheral devices extends the value of the robot arm, allowing manufacturers to accomplish specific tasks tailored to their particular needs. These new tools are user-friendly, safe, and easy to implement and program even without any robotics experience. Workers can program a cobot simply by moving the arm and gripper through the desired motions and using the cobot’s integrated touchscreen interface to “teach” it. EoAT such as quick changers allow workers to swap out grippers within minutes to change the cobot’s task, and a unified interface allows the grippers to be used throughout the manufacturing floor, on a range of robot brands and production lines. This also greatly reduces the time, effort, and cost associated with re-tasking a cobot for temporary jobs or burst production during busy seasons.
Accumold: As robots become smaller, what are the most challenging aspects in miniaturization and design?
Kristian Hulgard: The manufacturing market continues to demand automation solutions that can handle increasingly smaller parts, fitting into more space constrained spaces. At OnRobot, our EoAT is evolving to address this need. A recent example is our new VGC10 vacuum gripper, a compact version of our VG10 gripper, which has its official U.S. debut at our MD&M West booth this year.
The compact VGC10 is smaller and lighter than its larger cousin, so it is ideal for constrained environments and smaller robot arms, offering the same impressive payload of 15 kg (32 lb). The VGC10 features two independently controlled air channels that allow it to act as a dual gripper with pick-up and release in the same action, further increasing efficiency and reducing cycle time. The gripper can also be used with a single air channel for higher gripping performance.
The VGC10 provides fast out-of-the-box deployment but also offers unlimited customization, with easily changeable suction cup options and the ability to add or replace arms to fit highly specific application needs. With this configureability, the VGC10 can grip and move a wide array of small, multi-dimensional, and heavy objects even with a lighter payload robot arm.
Accumold: What lesson have you learned about minimization, that OEM engineers/designers can utilize on their next project?
Kristian Hulgard: In industrial automation “bigger” is not always better. The challenge is to offer an end-of-arm-tool for a robot arm with enough payload capacity but with a low enough weight that the weight of the gripper itself doesn’t push max payload. It doesn’t have to be a trade-off, we’re seeing a lot of innovation in innovative light-weight robotic grippers with impressive payloads – even when the grippers comes with extra features such as built-in sensors. A recent example of that is our RG2-FT gripper that launched at MD&M West last year and is experiencing great market demand.
The RG2-FT now has built-in force/torque sensing, supporting work in piece detection and centering. With inbuilt 6 axis force/torque sensing and proximity laser sensors at the fingertips, the RG2-FT is the first intelligent gripper on the market that can see and feel objects, thus ensuring faster deployment of collaborative applications and ultimately higher productivity.
The RG2-FT gripper is a sophisticated—yet entirely accessible—new piece of technology that manufacturers with tasks such as assembly, insertion, materials handling, and quality inspection are now requesting. The intelligent force feedback provided by the gripper’s sensors will also help operators in adjusting their applications for optimal design and positioning – even in very small delicate handling processes.
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