Archive for February, 2019

Small and medium-sized businesses are finding ways to save money and streamline operations by automating.

February 3, 2019

Small businesses are not being left behind in the trend towards industrial automation.

Rather, they are being cautious in their approach to moving more and more of their operations onto automated processes.

It is popular to think since the 1950s that industrial automation was more for big businesses running huge operations, which involve massive production lines.  But the historic barriers to entry, huge costs and time constraints associated with setup are disappearing.

One reason, thanks to advances in how robots learn, many systems are designed to be set up by non-experts.  Robots have become readily deployable into lines without dramatically slowing down or reconfiguring operations.

Without the need of hiring specialists, but rather using consultants and a rapidly growing field service sector targeting small and mid-sized business (SMB), customers are cropping up literally overnight. Moreover, many suppliers offer help getting their robots online, easing the transition to automation.

Here are reasons why your small- or medium-size business might consider automation.

AFFORDABLE

The most popular collaborative robot on the market is UR5 by Universal Robots; it costs about $35,000, it is suitable for a variety of tasks like components manufacturing, pick-and-place, as well as bench-work in labs and light fabrication shops.

Another company, Soft Robotics, using materials science in favor of complex engineering, makes soft grippers that conform to objects and are suitable to handle a wider range of tasks than their hard-skinned counterparts.

SAFE

While collaborative robots are billed as safe, and by and large that is true; it is a matter of how it’s used.  There is currently a groundswell effort to help establish stricter compliance protocols to ensure safety; perhaps 2019 is the year that robot safety becomes a top priority.

The safety record since robots have come out of cages to start working alongside humans has been strong.  A combination of force sensors, which cause robots to stop when they bump into things, advanced machine vision, and other sensing innovations have resulted in platforms that are reasonably safe if deployed responsibly.

FLEXIBLE DEPLOYMENT

If your company warehouses and ships components, manufactures small devices, performs scientific testing, fabricates metal or is involved something else… there is most likely a robot for that.  In fact, it is possible all of those operations could be served by the same robot.

The trend in industrial automation is task-agnostic platforms that can be customized and configured for an infinite number of deployment types.  Companies like Fetch Robotics, which makes autonomous mobile robots for materials handling and picking & placing, can move materials in a warehouse just as easily as they can stock inventory in a logistics operation.  When designing a lightweight pneumatic collaborative robot, Festo intentionally modeled it after a human arm, a nod to the range of tasks it was designed to perform.

The widest integration of collaborative robots has happened in industries like components handling, but SMBs in all industries are finding innovative ways to automate with collaborative robots.

What tasks can be automated?

Repeatable tasks in predictable environments.  That could mean picking diverse products off a line and placing them in a bin.  It could also mean operating existing machinery, such as CNC machines or welders.  At the other end of the spectrum, it could mean holding a beaker and pipetting chemicals.

Sectors

Automation with a diversity of applications is so versatile, SMBs are benefiting from automation in a variety of sectors; they include but are not limited to agriculture, apparel, boutique manufacturing, construction, fabrication, healthcare, laboratory, publishing, real estate, technology, among others.

With the pressure to increase salaries and finding qualified employees, perhaps it is time to consider how your SMB can benefit from automation.