Collaborative and flexible robotics is an SME affair

Why should an Italian small-medium enterprise buy a collaborative robot? What are the advantages it can give to the company’s productivity? Five players in the sector related their experience and solutions, highlighting the pros and cons of cobots in SMEs.

The 2021 edition of the A&T fair, dedicated to 4.0 innovation, technology and skills, was a result of the situation we are experiencing. As it was not currently possible to experience it live, with the classic stands and conferences in person, the digital version was born, with an innovative connective and interactive platform which quickly put visitors and exhibitors in contact, making it possible to replicate the classic ‘trade fair’ meetings virtually. Furthermore, through the platform it was possible to follow workshops, round tables and conferences, ask questions and get in touch with speakers.
In this unprecedented context, on February 10th, the round table entitled ‘Robots for SMEs and beyond: comparing experiences’ took place, moderated by Professor Paolo Rocco, lecturer at Milan’s Polytechnic and member of the A&T Industrial Scientific Committee. An attempt was made to understand how collaborative robotics within small and medium-sized Italian companies is able to respond to their specific needs. The latest IFR data talk about a collaborative robotics market around 5% of the overall industrial robotics market: we are still talking about a “niche phase”, but one that is gaining ground and garnering more interest over time. “Today everyone is talking about it,” Paolo Rocco commented, “everyone is intrigued by this new technology. We would like to go a little deeper and try to understand what is the real added value of having a collaborative robot in a production process, when is it appropriate to use it and when not, what are the success stories to draw inspiration from”.
In order to shed more light on this technology and, above all, to talk about it in a practical way, five robotics players were involved, whose portfolios include cobots already fully integrated in various client companies which have benefited from this innovation. The speakers, listed in order, were: Oscar Ferrato, Collaborative Robot Product Manager, ABB; Pier Paolo Parabiaghi, Sales Manager Robotics, Fanuc; Marco Locatelli, Business Unit Cobotics Manager, Scaglia Indeva; Paolo Vaniglia, Field Application Engineering, Kuka; and Alessio Cocchi, Country Manager, Universal Robots. Each of them brought their own idea, their own experience, and presented the solutions which the company can offer to small and medium-sized enterprises on the Italian scene.

A&T’s platform quickly put visitors and exhibitors in touch with each other. ©A&T
A&T’s platform quickly put visitors and exhibitors in touch with each other. ©A&T

ABB’s experience: variability and low volumes

OSCAR FERRATO: When talking about collaborative robotics, reference is obviously being made to applications in which the operator works alongside the robot. In the field of Italian SMEs, I would like to focus on the faucet segment, on which ABB has been focusing for about a year. This type of company needs to assemble and mount relatively small parts, which are therefore suitable for processing with a collaborative robot, such as ABB’s YuMi. Where production quantities are large, this is typically done with rigid systems; the difficulty in this sector was therefore finding technological solutions for low to medium volumes, which were often outsourced and handcrafted by third parties. In this case, a collaborative robot can be of assistance, because the tasks it can carry out involve the assembly of sub-components, or operations such as tightening screws and servicing machines and lines. One of our customers, who did not have a strong background and knowledge of robotics, needed to assemble a timer-controlled faucet. We created a cell with the YuMi two-armed robot, which is completely responsible for mounting, assembly and screw tightening, as well as the final palletisation; the human operator’s task is to serve the machine when it needs to recharge the components. This approach allows low automation costs in the area of cell servicing, so as to have more investment power on the assembly activity. Of course, even in the case of collaborative applications, certain safety precautions must be maintained: for example, all the components of the robot are rounded and without sharp edges, so that in the event of a collision, the operator will not suffer any type of consequence; the screwdriver, if any, is positioned under the bench, so as not to put a person’s hands at risk; the slides can be loaded by the operator passing by the cell without having to enter it completely, and it is up to YuMi to use a camera to recognise the presence of the parts and check that they are all loaded correctly, and it only picks up the parts when it is sure that they are the correct ones. Besides, the YuMi is equipped from the start with force and feel checks to ensure that the components are fitted without error, or that the screws have reached the end of their rotation.

With the right risk analysis, a flexible and minimally invasive robotic system can be guaranteed. ©Scaglia Indeva
With the right risk analysis, a flexible and minimally invasive robotic system can be guaranteed. ©Scaglia Indeva

The importance of safety according to Fanuc

PIER PAOLO PARABIAGHI: At Fanuc, we have always developed collaborative robotics with the aim of transferring all the technology and functionality of traditional industrial robots into the collaborative robot. However, the first cobots we developed, about 6-7 years ago, lacked the teaching function: we therefore created the CRX range, which completes Fanuc’s offer, bearing in mind the production needs of SMEs and the possibility that they may not have a strong robotics background. Within this scenario, we have also expanded the category of what we call lightweight robots: their features give users and system integrators the possibility of having an immediate and simplified installation. These robots have a small footprint, enabling them to be installed even in areas where space is very important, their programming is intuitive and can be carried out in smartphone mode. The arm has been designed with rounded surfaces, a key feature when carrying out risk assessment. An innovative feature, of our own creation, is the total absence of gaps in the robot’s arm and forearm, so that no entrapment zones are created; these features are always in favour of flawless risk assessment.
But safety in the robot is not limited to its external design features. The CRX series is very sensitive, and can stop in the event of contact. As far as the Fanuc range is concerned, there is the possibility of setting the impact retraction function and the push back function: the former makes it possible to avoid crushing the operator or an object, since the robot is able to retract when it senses contact; the latter, on the other hand, is activated if an operator or an object should fall on the robot, which goes into “neutral” and lets itself fall, that is, it lets itself be pushed normally. Furthermore, this series is equipped with a light signal which allows users to understand at a glance the status of the robot, not only from a “maintenance” standpoint, but also as regards the mode in which it is working. When the yellow light is on, this means that the high-speed function is active, so it moves out of the domain of collaborative robots, and if it is necessary to make it work at these speeds it will be necessary to install laser scanners and barriers. A red light, on the other hand, shows that the robot is signalling a problem and going into an alarm mode.
The Fanuc CRX series can be easily managed using a tablet thanks to the teach pendant function, which allows simplified programming in drag & drop mode, with icons that can be dragged onto a time line. The possibility for the user to interact with the robot without difficulty and the possible readjustment is very important, because it allows a high degree of autonomy for the user: it elevates the operator to more noble tasks, therefore operating the machines and moving objects are tasks taken care of by the collaborative robot.

Collaborative cell with YuMi robots. ©ABB
Collaborative cell with YuMi robots. ©ABB

Ergonomic palletising: a new development by Scaglia Indeva

MARCO LOCATELLI: The group was founded in 1830 in Milan in the world of mechanics; it slowly evolved, and in 2019 Indeva decided to open a division, Indeva Cobotics, with the aim of integrating collaborative robots from Doosan.
Our cobots are equipped with several accessories, such as the cockpit, a self-learning solution which is quick and easy to use: the operator, through six buttons placed over the “head” of the robot, can move the cobot in any direction, making precise movements without oscillations on the X, Y and Z axes, save points, coordinates and the last position of the cobot, proceed with a free drive and move between the rows of the teach pendant. Another very important accessory is the integrated 2D vision system, attached directly to the robot’s wrist. The smart vision module can be activated directly from the teach pendant and is immediately operational after installation. With this accessory, it is possible to simultaneously recognise multiple objects in the work area and instantly measure various parameters such as position, angle and diameter.
In terms of safety, our cobots are certified in accordance with the Machinery Directive and the guidelines listed by the regulations for the applicability of collaborative robots; but, of course, this is not enough. In itself, therefore, the robot is safe, but through risk analysis it is also necessary to assess the application in which it will be inserted, and to try to understand how to eliminate any dangers by installing special safety systems and specific devices to make the application truly safe and collaborative.
Safety is also a matter of ergonomics and workers’ health: collaborative robotics applications, among other things, can relieve operators of many repetitive, menial and tiring activities which could harm them physically. For example, Indeva is also a manufacturer of AGVs, so it was natural to combine this with the cobot: it is certainly an opportunity to ease the workload of the operators. Our mobile robot travels on a magnetic strip placed on the floor, and interacts with the cobot installed on top of it, which, at the operator’s request, feeds the material. Another application designed with ergonomics in mind is our collaborative palletising cell, launched at the beginning of 2021. It is equipped with a very simple configuration software, and through an HMI it is possible to declare the size of boxes, weight, pallet and desired layout: this allows a quick reconfiguration of the work sequence. To provide a practical example, one of our customers needed to carry out repetitive palletizing work, where the employees had to lift boxes weighing up to 16 kg. Thanks to the Indeva cell, the pallet lifting operations are carried out by the robot, and the operator is left with the task of filling the boxes with material. It is a system which can easily be integrated in the line layout: talking about collaborative robotics, no barriers are necessary, and with a correct risk analysis it is possible to guarantee a flexible and unobtrusive robotic system which allows operators to work easily.

Choosing the right scenario with Kuka

PAOLO VANIGLIA: For an SME, it is certainly important to understand how collaborative an application can be, and consequently to identify the best robot for the company. KUKA’s portfolio is not limited to cobots, but it is quite extensive, including traditional and mobile industrial robots. Typical questions asked by an SME are: at which levels can a robot be introduced, and which type should be introduced each time? Thinking of a full automation scenario, we find a traditional industrial robot placed within barriers and the only interaction the operators have with it is through buttons, HMIs or PLCs which allow them to safely open doors and enter the robot’s working area when it is stationary. In such a case, there is a clear separation of space between the operator and the robot; if there is sufficient space, the barriers can be eliminated, creating a situation of coexistence between the two, where the operators continue to work on their side and the robot on its side, and the maximum extension of one can never reach the maximum stroke of the other. In a non-full automation scenario, on the other hand, there are shared spaces, which may be continuous or occasional. In the second case, there will be some moments when the operator will be very close to the gripping tools with which the robot is working, and this is called cooperative interaction. In the former case, on the other hand, the application is collaborative in the true sense of the word, because machine and humans share space at all times and work together constantly.
Depending on the chosen or necessary scenario, the risk analysis changes: it is necessary to understand when there is contact and for how long, if the required speeds lead to the choice of a full automation scenario, since at high speeds there can be no collaborative or cooperative interaction. On the contrary, in a scenario of pure coexistence, the dangerous elements are always covered by something rounded, even if the operators do not approach the robot even though they have their work area next to it, but the speed can be kept constantly high unless the operator changes it on the panel. The cobot, on the other hand, is so called precisely because it collaborates with the human, it can share spaces, it has an on-board sensitivity for assemblies and for interaction with the surrounding world, gaining in safety; however, precisely because it works closely with the human, it cannot operate at high speeds. In a situation of coexistence and cooperation, therefore, we do not necessarily need a collaborative robot, but we can insert a traditional industrial one equipped with appropriate sensors, such as laser scanners, radar or sensitive skins. Collaborative robotics is, however, above all a question of risk analysis: in my opinion, this is the great misunderstanding of recent years, because all too often it is carried out at the end, after the cobot and its location have been chosen, when it should be done before even writing the first line of code. Certainly, before entering an application, you need to have a chat about what might be the right choice: even those who have a large portfolio do not necessarily have the right product; and a collaborative robot is not necessarily the best and safest choice for the application in which it should be inserted.

The levels of HRC: coexistence, cooperation and collaboration. ©Kuka
The levels of HRC: coexistence, cooperation and collaboration. ©Kuka

Flexibility and adaptability: cobots by Universal Robots

ALESSIO COCCHI: Universal Robots deals exclusively with collaborative robotics; we have seen that this is a niche within industrial robotics which is constantly growing, and which is particularly appreciated by SMEs. We developed, even with these companies in mind, a plug & play ecosystem of products and accessories for our cobots, working with over 400 developers and brands to further simplify the commissioning of our collaborative robots. Flexibility is certainly one of the strengths of collaborative robots: they are lightweight machines which can be easily re-installed and reprogrammed, through a user-friendly human-machine interface on a tablet and with simplified teaching, in other production environments to meet the different production needs of the moment. These properties, together with the fact that UR cobots are able to perceive impacts with a programmable sensitivity depending on the risk assessment and the requirements for the specific cell, allow them to be used on mobile trolleys as well, thus enabling them to be moved from one department to another. Other important advantages brought by the collaborative robot are yielding and adaptability: even complex tasks such as assemblies can be carried out without problems by the machine, thanks to the integrated force-torque sensor. The question of safety is also fundamental, of course: the robot must stop in the event of an impact, even if it is with a simple sheet of paper; this is why we have built them with very sensitive thresholds. Actually, it is an anthropomorphic robot, which can work in more or less automatic cells and have interaction with humans or not depending on the productivity required. I would like to point out that from the very beginning Universal Robots has proposed and designed its products especially for SMEs: among our customers there are also large multinationals, but 70% of the market is made up of small and medium-sized enterprises. I believe that this success is due to the flexibility of use and ease of integration: a small or medium-sized company does not have to work with batches of millions of pieces, more frequently with batches of low numbers but highly differentiated, so it is important that it can be easily reprogrammed. The fact that you can put it in one department today and another tomorrow allows a very quick return on investment, compared to a fixed, rigid cell which only performs one operation.
Collaborative robots can automate almost any production process, within the limits of range and reach. The cobot also helps in terms of the ergonomics and physical health of workers: if, for example, the operators had to pick up and lift panels several times a day, they would risk musculoskeletal problems, so this task would be left to the cobot.