Redefining the competence of robots in industrial automation

10th June 2019
Alex Lynn

Serving as the cornerstone of industrial robots that are already in use across industries, the robotic tool changers are playing a pivotal role in improving their overall productivity and efficiency. With mass shifting of factories to Industry 4.0, adoption of robotic tool changers marks an important step for businesses toward achieving complete industrial automation. 

By Santosh Kumar, Fact.MR

Are robotic tool changers changing the ‘uptime’ game?
Robotics, a revolutionary breakthrough for the manufacturing industry, is constantly advancing. Compared to the traditional automation technology, robotics has been gaining popularity owing to its multiple key benefits, including high reliability, reduced risk, lower maintenance, quick changeover, easy upgrade and redeployment, and improved levels of versatility and flexibility. 

Robotic automation is now a commonplace technology across manufacturing factory settings, and has been witnessing greater adoption with an objective to achieve the bottom line - productivity, profitability, and improved ROI. As industrial settings are accelerating the shift to robotic automation, manufacturing companies ought to be abreast of the recent innovations in robots, robotic tools, and tool changers. 

While factory operators prefer state-of-the-art, versatile robots for cost optimisation and improved throughput, the selection of tool changers remains the key concern. Appropriate tool changers assure optimum productivity of robots in each possible application. In addition to cost effectiveness and time efficiency, robotic tool changers allow for a quick changeover to another job ad infinitum. 

Pick and place, repetitive tasks, high level precision measurements, packaging, painting, welding, palletising, assembling, material handling, testing, loading and unloading of machine tools, and inspection and measurement have been some of the standard applications of industrial robots that are employed in automotive, food and beverages, consumer electronics, aerospace, and several other industries. 

With aggravating demand for flexibility and delivery within the shortest possible timelines continues to aggravate, the competence of robots to perform for a set of multiple complex tasks, prominently including those that are rapid and redundant, remains a critical area of focus for manufacturers. Here is when the right tool changers step in. 

While robots that are functional ss industries from automotive to white goods are currently handling more applications than before, the use of robust tool changers is allowing for optimal cycle time, reduced operational intervention, and utmost flexibility.

Automotive industry remains at the forefront of robotic tool changer end use 
Increasing reliability on industrial robots is triggering frequent engineering innovations in automated or robotic tool changers, in terms of specificity of application and end-use industry, and thereby, eliminating the need for operator storing, handling and assembly of tooling. 

Moreover, the rising need for minimising and even eliminating product changeover is influencing the adoption rate of robotic tool changers for all ranges of robots and payloads. Among all the associated end-use industries, robotic tool changers are witnessing revolutionary upgrade in the automotive industry. 

Use of robots in welding operations continues to be the second largest area of application after pressing and stamping, within the automotive industry settings. Moreover, in pressing operations, each application needs a different arrangement for gripping the part, with press line changing nearly four to five times, with each shift. To simplify such gripper changing processes with minimum changeover time, the industry operators are increasingly preferring high-performance robotic tool changers. 

Selection of the right automated tool changer from a plethora of available options majorly depends on multiple parameters, one of which is the associated price point, as it adds nearly 3-10% to the original cost of the tool changing system. 

Other key parameters include the strength of robotic tool changer, the number and size of electrical and pneumatic contacts, extent of temperature and chemical resistance, and repeatability specifications. 

Electric cars: powering the prospects of robotic tool changers
The global sustainability drive has been fuelling vehicle electrification, and the subsequent rise in electric vehicles (EVs) sales is squarely influencing the demand for robotic automation at EV manufacturing settings.

EV manufacturing companies are eyeing adoption of robotic tool changers to handle changeover complexities, especially during welding operations, which constitutes one of the essential processes involved in EV manufacturing. 

Companies providing tool changers are focusing on positioning themselves in the global market by designing automatic robotic tool changers that specifically cater to the demands of the electric car production landscape. 

Along with the development of tool changers specifically for electric car production, manufacturers are also directing efforts toward providing set-up expertise, operational training and support, and post-sales support. 

In terms of the production and sales of EVs, China is rapidly thriving, with companies expanding their electric vehicle manufacturing capacities. This scenario is likely to provide a favourable climate for robotics along with manufacturers of robot accessories, arm tooling, and tool changers to offer their products on a large scale in the country. 

According to the International Federation of Robotics, China saw strong growth in robot sales (2018) with more than 133,000 robots sold across industries. A majority of the demand was albeit met by Chinese robot manufacturers with a target to fulfil domestic demand for robots. 

Meanwhile, North America and Europe are already witnessing remarkable growth in EV sales owing to the stringent emission regulations imposed on the automotive industry. Also, recently, the US overtook Europe to become the world’s second largest market for electric cars. 

Despite challenges in such as controlling the production cost and adapting to the shifting demand patterns, industrial robot sales in the US and European automotive industry remains strong and is likely to continue the same in coming years. Escalating adoption of collaborative robots, particularly for tedious tasks such as heavy lifting, marks an important trend in the automotive industry within these two regions. 

Tool changers for cobots foreseen to break ground
Ascending popularity of collaborative robots (cobots) is rapidly translating into greater rate of adoption across industries. Cobots can seamlessly function alongside humans and are touted to be considerably cheaper and safer when compared to their industrial counterparts. Moreover, cobots have always been perceived superior in terms of capability within harsh industrial settings. 

It is highly likely that as manufacturers continue to yearn for improved flexibility, efficiency, and ROI, cobots will witness an increasing number of adoption opportunities in the near future. With surging penetration of collaborative robots, the precision requirement of tool changers is also subject to a higher level of stringency. Companies are thus focusing on robotic tool changers that are specifically engineered for enhancing flexibility and productivity of cobots. 

ATI Industrial Automation, the pioneer in the tool changing landscape, has contributed at an unmatched level to innovations shaping the tool changing industry. Being a globally leading manufacturer, an extensive and top-of-the-line portfolio has been ATI’s focus area. 

Recently, the company launched a fully automated robotic tool changer - QC11 Automatic Tool Changer, the first of its kind to be developed in the Americas that has received the UR+ certification from Universal Robots. The QC11 Automatic Tool Changer enables robots to utilise more than one end-effector in a single process, which does not involve manual intervention. 

Customisation marks the latest trend among tool changer manufacturers
In response to the innovation in robotics combined with new robotic technologies being launched for various industries for different applications, manufacturers providing robotic tool changers are focusing on enhancing their design portfolios to include customised toll changers. 

For an instance, Stäubli provides fast automatic tool changer with modular and intelligent product concepts offering high flexibility and short conversion time in the robot controlled production. The company recently launched application-specific variants, including MPS 630 Automatic Tool Changer, which is suitable for production environment characterised by high precision and fast speed. 

Manufacturers are amplifying load capacity of the changers to ensure high scale productivity. In recent years, automatic manual robot tool changers with exceptional vibration resistant features have also gained popularity across industries. 

Feasible mounting on robot arm is also one of the key focus areas of manufacturers, resulting in the production of ISO compatible interface. Furthermore, companies are also focusing on developing compact sized and lightweight robotic tool changers. 

What lies ahead for robotic tool changers? 
Tool changing technologies have evolved from manual, to automatic and and robotic, over the past few decades. However, designing tool changers for mobile manipulator robots still remains a challenging area. It is likely that in the near future, robots will themselves use tool changers to gain access to a variety of sensors and tools, which would demand the design, evaluation, and implementation of novel ool changers.

Today, robots have become increasingly viable for a wide range of automation applications, with increasing use in machine tending, packaging, machining, welding, assembly and more. Though several manufacturers in the food and beverages industry are still stuck with manual operations, there has been a steady move towards automating the processes so as to enhance the production to meet growing demand and quest for high product quality. 

Healthcare industry also increasingly using robotic automation technologies, particularly medical device manufacturers, to ensure safety and precision. Again, the bottom line is managing the downtime and improving uptime. 

Although a sizeable number of manufacturers still consider automatic manual robot tool changers as a commodity, the quest for smooth production process with minimal downtime will continue to push deployment of robots in industrial settings, thereby influencing sales of robotic tool changers.

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