[Source: Mitsubishi Electric Europe BV]
Over recent years, robots have simplified social distancing and allowed manufacturers to protect human operators whilst maintaining high production throughput. However, getting closer to robots can do much more to create an efficient industrial environment that prioritises employee health, safety and well-being.
Barry Weller, Robot Product Manager at Mitsubishi Electric, looks at how getting closer to robots can improve safety in the workplace, and how productivity also benefits.
It is common for manufacturers to employ a combination of automated and manual operations in their processes. Some manual operations form part of automation processes that are hard to automate like machines tending to load and unload parts. Others can be small-batch products that do not justify automation and need an operator. For the present, there is also a need to give the operators enough space to be safely socially distanced. For these situations, robots offer a viable alternative.
Getting closer to robots
Robots are ideal for workstation deployment because they can also change the way an operator tends machines. In addition, it is often possible to reuse existing machinery, saving costs by reconfiguring them to incorporate robots. With the use of simple feeding systems and robots that load and unload parts from one machine to another, what was once a series of standalone workstations transforms into an efficient and lean continuous production process.
As an example, one customer in the automotive industry operated a production line with six machines tended by six different employees. By reconfiguring the system to incorporate robots and handling systems, the number of operators fell to one across the six machines. This allowed the redeployment of former machine operators to elsewhere in the production process. The working conditions also improved as previously the operators had to enter a high-risk area when the machine was operating.
Repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) are among the most common job-related musculoskeletal disorders in the UK. The Trade Union Congress (TUC) claims that half a million UK workers have reported these symptoms. This adds up to 5.4 million working days lost each year and makes it a significant cost burden. Yet robots can take on many of the low force movements that cause RSIs for human operators. They can improve both the health of workers and release them for more complex tasks.
Another advance in automation technology is the creation of environments where robots and humans can work closer together. Collaborative robots (cobots) help operators work in ways that are both productive and comfortable communal manufacturing facilities. Cobot development introduces many features to ensure the safety of operators.
For getting closer to robots, Mitsubishi Electric also offers its SafePlus safety system. This can equip any type of Mitsubishi Electric robot with a safety-rated monitored stop, hand guiding, speed and separation monitoring. Finally, new generations of software including Artificial Intelligence are reducing programming times and speeding up introductions.
Mitsubishi Electric has a portfolio of industrial and collaborative robots to meet most production needs. Support and advice are also available from robot integrators with broad experience in high productivity environments.