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Dropping our robot defences

22 April 2016

Collaborative robots – or cobots – are starting to bring down the barriers in manufacturing and production facilities. 

Unlike early industrial robots that had to be isolated behind a protective cage, this new wave of robots comes equipped with sensors, vision and, in most cases, plenty of programmed self-control, enabling people and robots to work safely side-by-side. 

FANUC recently launched a collaborative robot with a payload capacity of up to 35 kg and this was demonstrated at the recent Foodex exhibition at the NEC in Birmingham, where it was  employed to hand out soft drinks to visitors.

Compared to its yellow relatives, the green FANUC CR-35iA works without the need for a cage to protect its human colleagues. Designed for tasks such as heavy workpiece transfer and parts assembly, robot and human operator are able to work collaboratively alongside each other without a safety fence. A dexterous six-axis arm with a reach of 1.813m, the robot has a soft surface to reduce impact force and prevent a human operators being pinched. Certified to meet the requirements of international standard ISO 10218-1, if it comes in contact with a human co-worker or any object with a certain force, it stops or retracts immediately. 

FANUC is set to introduce another collaborative robot to the range –  the CR-7iA which will have a payload of 7 kg with mechanics corresponding to that of the company's LR Mate-series.

This newest development represents a significant leap in addressing robotic safety hazards. Although it does not eliminate the need for comprehensive workplace risk assessments, the increased adoption of peripheral safety devices is enabling robots and humans to work in close proximity of each other, eradicating the fear of interrupting production or worse, causing an accident. 

Embedding greater control into automation operations
“Until recently, the mindset of most people was if you have a robotic hazard you banish humans from the robot working area with a physical guarding solution,” said Steve Capon, technical manager at FANUC UK. “That thought process for many is changing thanks to rapid advances in sophisticated software control technology and integrated safety.” This means that it is now possible to impose set limits on how fast a robot works and the operational areas it can and cannot enter, It can be programmed to slow down as it approaches a hazard, rather than coming to an abrupt standstill, and even introduces presence-sensing detection.  

This new breed of robots is enabling manufacturers to think more creatively around how automation equipment is deployed and how companies can boost production efficiencies while saving space. “Safety risks vary depending on the selected robot and application,” emphasises Steve. “One of the key advantages of being able to embed more of the safety-related functions into the robot controller is you can design out the various safety hazards whilst also eliminating the need for external fixtures or mechanical devices to supply this functionality. 

FANUC recently demonstrated a fenceless robot cell in collaboration with Rockwell Automation. In this showcase, Rockwell safety laser scanners were installed close to floor scanning horizontally for any approach to the system. As an intrusion got closer, these scanners informed the robot system to operate slower. Additional mini scanners were concealed under the FANUC robot system mounting, providing an invisible shield and initiating the robot to stop when the box of light is encroached. 

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